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Magic Kingdom or 'Cultural Chernobyl'?

April 19, 1992|By EDUARDO CUE

The Socialist government, eager to attract EuroDisney to France and conveniently forgetting the rhetoric about American cultural imperialism that marked its first years in power, was more than happy to meet every demand the Disney Company made during the complex negotiations that resulted in a 400-page contract.

It allowed Disney, for instance, to have full control of any activity taking place within a 6-mile radius of the park, including decision-making powers over zoning and traffic control as well as police powers to maintain public order within the complex. Critics say this gives EuroDisney the same status as a duchy or principality.

Not only did the government agree to important financial and tax concessions to lure Disney to France rather than Spain, it also sold the land where the park now stands to the Disney Co. at a mere $2 per square foot.

The government also financed and built new highways, extended the RER regional express commuter railway to the park, and is currently building a direct line of its high-speed TGV train from the Channel Tunnel that will link Britain and France to Mickey's doorstep. If nothing else, Disney is certain to make millions in real estate.

But all is not well in the Magic Kingdom.

In January, EuroDisney's main contractors demanded extra money for extra work added after the agreements had been signed. The sum being asked, $154 million, is the largest France has ever known in a labor dispute.

The recruitment of "cast members," the name coined by EuroDisney to describe its workers, caused a scandal in France and resulted in a spate of negative publicity for the Disney Co. and American business practices in general. Disney was taken to court because the company's appearance code, which specifies, among other things, that women wear "appropriate undergarments" and men shave off mustaches and beards, is forbidden by French labor law and considered to be a violation of individual rights.

Those who have been given jobs are receiving wages under the national norm, but the 10 percent unemployment rate, representing nearly 3 million workers looking for jobs, gave Disney an unbeatable argument for allowing the project.

The park's very presence has caused serious problems in a peaceful agricultural region dotted with ancient villages. Traffic is expected to increase geometrically, and town people will have to put up with the constant passing of trains. The nightly fireworks, while they may not wake up Sleeping Beauty, are certain to disturb the area's residents.

Unparalleled population growth is also expected. The tiny hamlet of Magney-le-Hongre, for example, estimates its population will explode from 35 people today to 7,500 persons eight years from now.

All of this, however, is certain to be far from the thoughts of the millions of visitors eager to experience an imaginary America become reality in the heart of France.

Eduardo Cue is Paris bureau chief for United Press International.

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