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Mickey Mania: French Critics' Warnings May Be Falling on Deaf Ears

A YOUNG Italian man walks out of the Paris suburban train station here, takes one look at the salmon-pink Euro Disneyland Hotel styled after an American turn-of-the-century resort, and exclaims, "Ah, che bellezza!"

What beauty, indeed. It's enough to cause any number of French intellectuals to redouble their crusade against the latest beachhead of the American cultural invasion. The same young man might walk indifferently past Florence's Duomo, the Roman Forum, or the Doges' Palace in Venice, but before the (faux) red-tile roof of Euro Disneyland's finest architecture, he is reduced to tears.

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All of which goes to show that people are struck by what is different - and that the intellectuals have their work cut out for them.

That the opening of the mammoth Euro Disney resort - complete with Main Street USA and daily Disney character parades, and all of it just 20 miles east of Notre Dame de Paris - would solicit cries of alarm among the French intellectual class was as predictable as the annual emptying of Paris for the August vacation. The tone was set when one Paris theater director called Disney's arrival a "cultural Chernobyl."

With the French language in retreat around the world and even French scientific researchers finding they must publish in English to be heard, with French cinema pulling in fewer viewers at home, and with the same French government that a decade ago railed against American cultural imperialism placing laurels around the necks of such purveyors of "la culture USA" as Warren Beatty and Sylvester Stallone, the reaction to Euro Disney is in part a natural expression of a state of siege.

Yet Americans tempted to snicker at deep discussions over the arrival of the Magic Kingdom need only think back to their own reaction when the Japanese began buying up such symbols of American life as major movie studios and New York's Rockefeller Center.

The question now is whether all the spilt ink and televised debates will matter to the average French citizen. Some French observers say that Euro Disneyland is probably much more in line with France's evolving concept of leisure than many intellectuals choose to accept.

"Ten years ago people would have been revolted, but things are changing," says Chantal Malenfant, a sociologist specializing in sports and leisure. "The French really aren't accustomed to such commercialization, but the [Albertville] Olympics testified to an evolution. And then among the youth," she adds, "with their extraordinary pocket money and sense of consumerism, the evolution is quite advanced."

For Ms. Malenfant, it is Euro Disney's cost (both for the visiting family and the French taxpayer) and the "foreign" entertainment it offers that may yet run afoul of the average French person. "In order to work, Disneyland requires the visitor to suspend reality and play the game," she says. "I'm not sure the French are ready to do that."

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As for the cries of cultural invasion, Malenfant says the critics garner few listeners: "The [common people] don't read the opinion columns of Le Monde."

Still, among their anti-Disney warnings ranging from robotized children to increased American-style obesity, some French intellectuals raise interesting points.

The philosopher and writer Alain Finkielkraut suggests that Euro Disney, with its "jungle of giant sequoias and special effects more beautiful than what is on television," is an expression of an Americanization that signals "the breaking of the last ties still attaching us to nature."

Then there is Andre Glucksmann, who hailed the park's arrival as part of the "heartening to-ing and fro-ing" of elements of Western culture across the Atlantic. The Old Continent "colonized" the imagination of the New World, he wrote in the International Herald Tribune, and "we are only taking back our due."

It is this last point that comes to mind when cameras click madly at a certain Mouse's appearance in the Euro Disneyland parade. For the Spaniards, Germans, Italians, Brits, Swedes, Swiss - and yes, French - looking on, Mickey may be American by birth, but he is accepted as a citizen of the world.

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