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Eurodisney, Parc Asterix and now Napoleonland?

In France, there's controversy over plans to build a theme park to the glory of the French emperor. While Napoleon still enjoys widespread popularity in the republic, there are also many against the project.

Yves Jego, the mayor of Montereau, east of Paris, where Napoleon won one of his last victories, has announced that he intends to build a theme park to the glory of the Emperor - "the only French historical figure with a real international reputation," he claims.

Like the pint-sized tyrant himself, he is thinking big: Over 1.5 million visitors a year. 3000 jobs. A 100-hectare site.

Jego says the park would use the latest simulation and 3D technology enabling visitors to enroll in Napoleon's Grande-Armee and experience the battles that won and lost France a vast Empire. Visitors will be able to put on skis and descend the Alps to invade Italy or attend the Emperor's self-coronation at Notre-Dame.

"It's a journey that'll take us to Egypt, the West Indies and the snows of Russia," Jego says.

"With the sea battles, we'll be able to explore the underwater world. We'll have real re-enactments but also places where images will give visitors the impression that they're at the heart of the battle!"

Tourism Minister Frederic Lefebvre, also a Napoleon fan, is strongly in favor of the park. This is important as Jego needs the government to finance a high-speed rail link to bring visitors the 70 kilometers from Paris to Montereau.

In addition to which he requires 250 million euros of private investment.

French soldiers Copyright: John Laurenson

Napoleon fever is rife in France

Judging by Napoleon's popularity in France today, he stands a good chance of getting it.

In Montereau high-street, there's a Napoleon costume in the clothes shop window and drums and bugles at the opticians. The patisserie makes sweets that are black and round like cannonballs.

Not that there's anything exceptional about Napoleon enthusiasm in France. Look at all the streets, stations, bridges and what have you named after his victories or his generals and you could be forgiven for thinking Napoleonland already exists. It's called Paris.

Parisian pride

In Paris's Place Vendome there's a 44-meter-high column molded out of melted-down enemy canon with a statue of Napoleon in a Roman toga on the top. Here one elegant 60-something Parisienne told DW: "(He) was a great man who had a vision of the future. A great man the likes of whom we can't see anymore today."

A student in his late teens said: "I'm proud of Napoleon because he was a brilliant general from a humble background; he was ambitious and a rebel."

As a general in his twenties, Napoleon fought to protect the French Revolution from attack by European monarchies led by Britain. He emerged as a powerful, autocratic leader and military campaigner.

He transformed France and many of the countries he conquered. The "code Napoleon," his clear, modern set of laws, is still the basis of law today in France but also in some countries he conquered such as Italy.

He created France's court system, its lycees (high schools) and its baccalaureate final school exam.

His military victories, such as the Battle of Austerlitz where he crushed the armies of Austria and Russia, are still studied in military academies today.

Napoleon's dark side

He was, as fans of the Napoleon videogame Total War would be the first to admit, a merciless killing-machine.

Claude Ribbe's book cover

Historian Ribbe wrote a book about Napoleon's crimes

Total War is an expression made famous by Hitler's propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels. Who, it so happens, produced a film called The Hundred Days about a Hitler-like Napoleon in 1934 based on a play co-written by Mussolini.

Hitler himself was a big Napoleon fan. Visiting the Emperor's tomb twice during his short trip to Paris after conquering France in 1940, he ordered the protection of the tomb from allied bombing and banned his officers from scuffing the white marble floor with their jackboots.

None of this surprises historian Claude Ribbe, author of a book called "Napoleon's Crimes."

"Napoleon was a racist dictator who reinstated slavery in France," he says. "Slavery had been abolished by the French Revolution in 1794 and Napoleon reinstated it in Guadeloupe, Martinique, Guyana and La Reunion in 1802. He tried to do the same in Haiti, causing a horrible war in which he attempted to exterminate the black civilian population over the age of 12 by burning sulfur dioxide in the holds of French navy ships."

In addition to this sinister precursor to the gas chambers, Ribbe says Napoleon herded black people into camps in mainland France, expelled them from the army and banned mixed marriages. Ribbe is appalled by the idea of a Napoleon theme park but those supporting the idea do not pretend their hero is above criticism.

Charles Napoleon for example, a descendent of Napoleon's younger brother Jerome. Tall, rather elegant in a pink tie and expressing himself easily in the language of the Nation of Shopkeepers he says the main purpose of the park is to let the people understand history.

Charles Napoleon; copyright: John Laurenson

Charles Napoleon is one of the emperor's descendants

"Understand first and then judge!" he says. "And there are a lot of things to understand in the history of Napoleon. It's at the same time very important from an historical point of view and very romantic!"

When pressed on the evils he perpetrated in Haiti or the massacre of unarmed Turkish prisoners in Syria he says that even history's greatest and best often did terrible things.

"Do you judge Churchill by the bombardment of Germany?" he asks. "You know that in one night he destroyed 10, 20, 30 thousand people! Of course, in Napoleon's very big political production some things were certainly wrong but most of what he did for us French and for most of the central European peoples brought progress!"

Napoleon hopes that the theme park honoring his much loved, much loathed relative will open in 2017.

Author: John Laurenson, Paris
Editor: Gabriel Borrud

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