France’s Catholic Disneyland

Puy du Fou is popular, conservative, historically-themed — and successful

John Laurenson

The year is 2019 AD. Gaul is entirely occupied by liberals, Europhiles, historical repenters, anti-Christians and “citizens of the World”. Well, not entirely . . . One small village of indomitable Gauls still holds out against the invaders.

The Puy du Fou in the Vendée region of western France is, according to Tripadvisor, the world’s best theme park. It is certainly popular. It had 2.3 million visitors last year. It has won numerous prizes for its huge shows, featuring hundreds of costumed actors who recount the history of France through the prism of local history.

“The Sign of Triumph”, for example, plays every couple of hours to 6,000 people in a stone-built replica of a Gallo-Roman colosseum. The sign in question is the fish, the emblem of early Christianity, defiantly traced in the sand by a Gaul named Damien, a Roman centurion who has converted to Christianity.

The Roman governor addresses the crowd (which is encouraged to boo him) as “citizens of the Roman Empire, citizens of the World”, and tells them that “Gaul exists no more”. Damien’s having none of it. But if he doesn’t win the chariot race he will be put to death.

A race ensues with four chariots, each pulled by four horses; Damien wins but the governor goes back on his word. Now the upstart must fight for his life while the beautiful Gallic Christian maiden he loves is tied to a post with (real) lions released into the arena to eat her. The spectacle ends with a Gallic, Christian overthrow of the governor and a general, enthusiastic embracing of the faith.

It features historical figures from Joan of Arc to Viking invaders and First World War soldiers (who have a religious experience at Verdun and end up singing “Silent Night” in French and in German across the trenches. A falconry school breeds and trains birds of prey, 200 of which fly in a show called the Bal des Oiseaux Fantômes. Eagles bomb down from a hot air balloon; vultures, owls, hawks and kites swoosh the air over spectators’ heads. But put thoughts of nature-worship aside. A magnificent knight, in black armour on a black horse, returns from the Crusades to the swooning admiration of a languid damsel.

“It’s true, it’s patriotic,” says Rozenn de Boisfossé, paying her second visit to the park, along with her husband and four children. “We’re crying out to love our country nowadays. France has had its ups and downs—no one is perfect!—but here at least they show the beautiful side of our country.”

And not only that: Philippe de Villiers, a high-profile Catholic politician, created the Puy du Fou in 1989, 200 years after the French Revolution, in part as revenge.

The project emerged from a night spectacle he wrote (he writes the scripts for all the shows) called “The Vendée War” that recounts the terror meted out by the “infernal columns” sent by Robespierre in 1793 to crush Vendée’s royalist, Catholic, peasant resistance to the French Revolution. This mise-en-scène—with 1,500 volunteer extras—still plays today to thousands of people through the summer months, reliving the slaughter of men, women and children that many in Vendée say was a genocide.

The battle over that word continues among historians. And those who object to the way the Puy du Fou deals with the rebellion dislike its representation of other episodes of French history too.

“History at the Puy du Fou is mainly centred on a royalist viewpoint. It presents a religious history, a Catholic history. Everything was better before. Everything was better in France before the French Revolution,” says Aurore Chéry, a researcher with the University of Lyon. “They sell people [the idea that] this is only for their leisure and behind it you have a political viewpoint that is actually a far-Right viewpoint.”

Philippe Marie Jean Joseph Le Jolis de Villiers de Saintignon, Viscount de Villiers (above), to give him his full name, is not just a towering physical presence, at 6’ 7”, but a political phenomenon. Returning to his native Vendée after studying at the elite École Nationale d’Administration, he began his career as a civil servant. But ENA, often criticised for churning out brilliant but like-minded administrators, slipped up with the viscount.

He resigned as deputy-prefect when François Mitterrand was elected president in 1981 because he refused to serve under a Socialist, entering politics under the banner of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing’s free-marketeering UDF. He served as a minister under Jacques Chirac before quitting the government and his party to launch the euro-sceptic Mouvement pour la France. This co-led the successful “no” campaign in a 2005 referendum on the European Constitution; after being renamed a “treaty”, it was adopted anyway.

De Villiers has, in his 70 years, collected right-wing points of view the way boys collected football coins in the 1970s; he has long had the full set. Requests for an interview with him, or his son Nicolas, who runs the theme park, were rebuffed. A spokeswoman said the Puy du Fou was about entertainment, not politics, and she didn’t like my angle. But the patriarch of France’s religious Right was more forthcoming when asked about Puy du Fou by Vendée business leaders earlier this year: “If France forgets its Christian roots, it is dead. If Europe forgets its Christian roots, it is dead . . . it’s not a question of religion, it’s not a question of faith, it’s a question of culture, a questionof life, of survival even. We all have—whoever we are—a bit of Rome, a bit of Jerusalem, a bit of Athens . . . like a little book of the gospels that flows in our veins.”

Oh, and about the French Revolution, the one the French are all supposed to celebrate every year on Bastille Day? “The French Revolution has a terrorist gene in its DNA.” Not that Puy du Fou is xenophobic. Indeed, it is exporting itself around the world. So far talks with the Russians, the Chinese and the Hungarians have come to nothing but spectacles about Dutch, British and Spanish history have been performed in Efteling in the Netherlands, Bishop Auckland in England, and this summer in Toledo, Spain. A Spanish park modelled on the Puy du Fou will open next year. Queue here for conquistadors, reyes catolicos and the Battle of Roncevaux Pass.

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"