D-day tribute or theme park?  The battle for the Normandy plan is raging

D-day tribute or theme park? The battle for the Normandy plan is raging

D-day tribute or theme park?  The battle for the Normandy plan is raging

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A fight has erupted in France over plans for a new D-day attraction near the landing beaches, which critics have likened to a Disney-style theme park.

The multimillion-dollar project to tell the story of le débarquement on June 6, 1944 and the subsequent Battle of Normandy in a 45-minute hi-tech “immersive show” sparked a furious war of words, with opponents describing it as disrespectful of the dead and their families.

On the one hand are the promoters of the € 90 million Hommage aux Héros (Tribute to the Heroes) project, who insist it will be a historically accurate and appropriate tribute. On the other hand, angry locals and veteran families have dubbed the project “D-day Land”, accusing the businessmen behind it of reducing one of the bloodiest events in European history to a profitable tourist attraction.

“They talk about creating the ‘wow factor’ of a ‘sensational show’ that will take place near the beaches and cemeteries of Normandy, which seems fundamentally immoral and indecent,” Bertrand Legendre, former Sorbonne professor and novelist who is leading resistance to the plan he told the Guardian. “The ethical principle of this commercialization of history is extremely shocking.”

Régis Lefebvre, one of the people behind the project, disagrees. “We want to convey the story of what happened with great historical rigor using today’s technology to make it interesting to as many people as possible. It’s that simple, “he said.” It’s not a theme park and we’ve never called it D-day Land. This is the name our opponents use. As for making money, those seriously starting a business to lose money? In England you understand. “

A public consultation on planning is ongoing until 7 October. If the attraction is approved, it will be built on a 75-acre site in Carentan-les-Marais, inland from American landing beaches Utah and Omaha (the British offensive focused on Sword and Gold beaches, and the Canadians have landed at Juno beach). Its supporters hope it opens in 2025 and attracts 600,000 visitors a year, paying up to € 28 for tickets.

Tourists visit the Pointe du Hoc Ranger Monument between Omaha Beach and Utah Beach in Cricqueville-en-Bessin.

Tourists visit the Pointe du Hoc Ranger Monument between Omaha Beach and Utah Beach in Cricqueville-en-Bessin. Photograph: Joel Saget / AFP / Getty Images

Legendre has a petition with 700 names of people opposed to the plan, including historians and relatives of the Normandy veterans.

“We children, grandchildren and loved ones of American, British and Canadian soldiers who faced enemy fire wish to register our firm opposition to the planned Hommage aux Héros theme park,” it reads. “We are shocked that their memory should be treated as a tourist attraction… the enthusiasm of the promoters for a ‘wow factor’ is absolutely questionable.

“Make no mistake. The transmission of memories is seen here as nothing more than a business opportunity … giving this project the green light would demean and devalue pain and sacrifice and present our fallen loved ones as mere curiosities in an entertainment business to extort money. “

Lefebvre has the support of former Defense Minister Hervé Morin, president of the Normandy Regional Council, and says the Education Inspectorate, the local mayor and the official French memorial association also support the project, which is funded by investments. private.

Morin stated that he fully supports the project as a means to “combine memory and tourism development… done with dignity”.

He added: “Honestly, as a former defense minister, do you think I would support him if I didn’t believe it? We have 5 million visitors to Normandy every year. Are people suggesting that we should shut down all activities related to the Battle of Normandy? Has anyone asked for a ban on the film Saving Private Ryan? “

Charles Norman Shay, 98, an American veteran residing in Normandy who took part in the first wave of Omaha beach landings, also gave his blessing to the project as an “appropriate” tribute to the fallen. Another veteran, Léon Gautier, 97, the last of the 177 French soldiers who took part in the landing, would have objected.

On June 6, 1944, 156,000 British and Allied soldiers stormed the beaches of Normandy in Operation Overlord, a surprise invasion that would mark the beginning of the end of the Nazi occupation of France. The Nazi regime surrendered less than a year later under attack from the east and west.

More than 425,000 Allied and German troops were killed, wounded or disappeared in the Battle of Normandy. Since then, veterans and their families have made an annual pilgrimage to the landing areas to pay their respects to fallen comrades.

In recent years their numbers have decreased with the death of old soldiers. In their absence, Hommage aux Héros aims to attract a younger audience, attracting visitors with a show in an amphitheater with a capacity of 1,000 spectators, telling the story of D-Day through actors and archival footage.

The British Normandy Memorial said it was keeping out of the fray and maintaining a “neutral stance”, while accepting that a number of veterans and their relatives had “significant reservations” about it.

General Richard Dannatt, president of the British memorial, said: “There are many memorial sites in Normandy, which is fair and correct. Those where people go to pay their respects, like the British memorial, are free and we note that this proposed site will charge a fee, which makes it very different. We will wait with interest to see what the French planning authorities decide ”.

Mark Worthington, the curator of a museum at Pegasus Bridge, where the first Allied gliders led by Maj John Howard landed in the early hours of June 6, 1944, said local museums were concerned that the new attraction would “cannibalize” visitors from them. .

“Many people who have told me about it are not very enthusiastic and some are absolutely against it. I guess we have to see how it’s done and I hope it’s not unpleasant, “she said.

Penny Howard Bates, Howard’s daughter, said she thought the idea of ​​Hommage aux Héros was in bad taste. “Trying to exploit this important event in history together with all the tragedies and suffering – not least by the French themselves – would be considered an outrage by those who try to honor dead relatives to free France and then Europe from the Nazis” , she said.

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