France sends legions of cartoon heroes off to save the embattled economy

Caught between mounting unemployment and sagging investment, Socialist France is turning to an unusual rescue crew that includes Mickey Mouse, the Smurfs, and a cartoon warrior from ancient Gaul named Ast'erix. Nearly a dozen amusement parks built around these and other figures of myth and imagination are in various stages of planning around France. For a government hungry to generate jobs and business activity, the concept has arrived just in time. For a nation with a tradition of public parks and celebrations dating back to royal days, they are long overdue.

``What one would call a real theme park does not exist in France today,'' acknowledges Christian Philippsen, who is planning the Ast'erix Park. ``It seems to be a void.''

The projects lining up to fill that void reflect a French society that can no longer afford its traditional, long trips to the country, and a generation that has grown eager to try something new in its free time, according to some observers. Others confess the projects also mark yet another European adoption of yet another tried and tested American idea.

Besides the Ast'erix park, other ideas on French drawing boards include a European Disneyland, a Smurf vacation park, a Futuroscope high-technology park, a park of ancient tales and legends, an enchanted village, and several smaller parks.

``All of this laid end to end can create a new industrial sector,'' says Jacques Le H'ericy of DATAR, a regional planning and development agency. ``DATAR is altogether supportive of these projects.''

Even if every project envisioned was actually built -- and none has yet broken ground -- this ``industrial sector'' is unlikely to create more than about 20,000 jobs for France's 2.5 million unemployed. Despite that, Mr. Le H'ericy says the government also has visions of developing expertise in theme park design that it could export.

Besides, any economic activity at all would help the current government. Developers and officials here cast a jealous eye on the success of theme parks in Florida, where Disney's Magic Kingdom and Epcot Center, Sea World, and Busch Gardens are said to draw nearly 30 million people annually.

The biggest prize of all would be the Euro-Disneyland, envisioned as a mixture of traditional Magic Kingdom rides and high-technology exhibits on about 4,000 acres just east of Paris. Prime Minister Laurent Fabius himself has been wooing Disney officials, but Disney is also examining a site on Spain's Mediterranean coast and is not expected to make a choice before the end of the summer.

Le Nouveau Monde des Schtroumpfs (``The New World of Smurfs'') is further along.

As part of a larger effort to regenerate the flagging economy of the Lorraine region on the German border, construction is set to begin next year on the site of a former steel mill. Rides will be mixed with high-tech telecommunications displays, and the whole sprinkled with the little blue people from the Belgian comic strip. Developer G'erard Kleinberg is proud of the American influence in his project.

Europe has other attraction parks such as Phantasieland in West Germany and De Efteling in the Netherlands, but Mr. Kleinberg says they grew up gradually rather than from a large initial investment.

``There is no European know-how,'' he says. ``There is no one in France or in Europe who can say, `I know how to do it.' '' The main reason he has drawn investors, Kleinberg says, is that his project has called on American consultants and American architects and will have American management.

But not all of the proposed projects will mean an American cultural invasion.

Among France's young people, the most-recognized cartoon character is Ast'erix, is a diminutive warrior in occupied Gaul who, along with a rotund sidekick named Ob'elix, causes havoc for the Roman legions of Julius Caesar.

``If ever a park has a chance of succeeding, it is the Ast'erix park,'' says Mr. Philippsen, the park's planner.

Citing the popularity of cartoons in France and the nation's penchant for large celebrations, Phillipsen says theme parks have every reason to succeed. One survey shows that more than 40 percent of the French visit one of the many traveling fun fairs that crisscross the country. That's twice the number who attend sporting events.

Until now, Philippsen speculates, investors have simply not had a solid theme park project to back. ``There are ideas that simply ripen,'' he says.

For Le H'ericy, however, the time of the French theme park comes as French people are looking for something more exciting and closer to home.

Economic pressures, he says, mean that fewer people can afford the traditional weekend home in the country. ``Less country, less seaside, but more active leisure,'' he says. ``People have a need to diversify their leisure.''

Whatever the reasons, plain common sense suggests that theme parks are a natural for a nation of bon vivants like France. They are potentially a valuable asset, too.

Still, as Philippsen says of his Ast'erix park: ``There are expectations. Our problem is not to disappoint them.''

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