PARIS — When you first think about it, there is something incongruous about the idea of a Disneyland right in the heart of the land of Marcel Proust, Andre Gide and Albert Camus.
Six years ago, when President Francois Mitterrand was campaigning for office, his Socialist Party platform warned against the pervasive influence of American popular culture on European children. It was "changing the French into Frenchicans, the Italians into Italicans, the Germans into Germanicans, and, in fact, the Europeans into Europicans," the platform said.
Yet just a few weeks ago, Premier Laurent Fabius, on behalf of the Socialist government of France, proudly signed a preliminary agreement with Disney Chairman Michael D. Eisner for the construction in five years of a Disneyland, that great symbol of American popular culture, in a suburb a few miles east of Paris.
'Is It Dangerous?'
Few people in France seemed upset by this turnabout. The Nouvel Observateur, a respected leftist weekly magazine, did run a picture of Mickey Mouse on its cover with the title, "This Mouse, Is It Dangerous?" But in eight pages of discussion by various writers, no firm conclusion was reached. Some writers ridiculed the Socialists for changing their point of view so radically and so quickly.
Actor Yves Montand, in his brief article, probably came closer to the mood of the country.
Montand hailed the ease with which France and the United States have long accepted each other's cultural achievements. Rather than keep American culture out, he said, the French have to create more to compete.
"It is up to us," he wrote, "to defend ourselves with talent, imagination and intelligence, not with narrowness, whining, demagoguery and extremism. Stop moaning and get out and fight."
There are several reasons why most French are not worried about a Disneyland in their midst. Any visitor can easily spot the signs of American influence in France--jeans and fast food and movies and rock and Mickey Mouse and much more. But French culture, despite this, is powerful and secure. It is not in danger.
Capacity for 'Le Cid'
This is proved every evening at the Theatre du Rond Point just off the Champs Elysees. French people stand in front with plaintive, hand-written signs begging incoming theatergoers for a spare ticket. The theater is packed to capacity for every performance of "Le Cid," the classic 17th-Century French drama by Pierre Corneille, starring Francis Huster, Jean Marais and Jean-Louis Barrault. It is the hit of the Paris season.
Many in the audience, who probably studied the play methodically during their school days, mouth the alexandrine lines of poetry as they thunder down from the stage. The French are so obsessed with this play now that a television news show recently analyzed whether its theme--the conflict of honor and love--revealed a truth about the French character.
Discussing the play, Gaston Defferre, the minister of planning and mayor of Marseilles who fought a duel almost 20 years ago, told an interviewer, "Dueling is perhaps dangerous, but it is sometimes necessary." It is hard to imagine the place of Le Cid ever undermined by Mickey Mouse.
The French have the talent and resources to compete with American popular culture as well. While the rest of Europe is dominated by the American film industry, French moviegoers see more of their own movies than anyone else's. The French have been rushing to "Rambo II" in droves, but that American film still lost out to a French comedy, "Three Men and a Baby Basket," as the most popular movie of 1985.
On top of this, French intellectuals have long respected and even revered Walt Disney and his art. That makes it extremely difficult for them to reject a Disney product even if, deep down, they understand that Disneyland is a far lesser intellectual achievement than the early Mickey Mouse cartoons like "Steamboat Willy."
Comic Books, an Art Form
The popular arts are studied and prized in France. Intellectuals pore over and analyze movies, animated cartoons and comic books all the time. The French pride themselves on the quickness with which they elevated jazz and comic books to art forms. Three movie theaters ran festivals of animated cartoons in the first week of January.
No one in France displays any disdain for the work of Disney. The French rank him as a true artist. The prestigious Pompidou Art Center is now displaying an exhibition of Walt Disney drawings. In the words of Magazine Litteraire, a monthly French book review, he was "one of the most important people in the history of American cinema."
"Disney Channel," a two-hour Saturday night show in which old Disney cartoons and movies are shown and discussed, was recently honored as the best children's television program in France.