Tuesday, April 9

D-day tribute or theme park? Battle rages over Normandy plan | France

A row 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-euro project to retell the story of le débarquement of 6 June 1944 and the subsequent Battle of Normandy in a hi-tech 45-minute “immersive show” has sparked a furious war of words, with opponents describing it as disrespectful to those who died and their families.

On one side are promoters of the €90m Hommage aux Heroes (Tribute to the Heroes) project, who insists it will be a historically accurate and appropriate tribute. On the other, angry locals and veterans’ families have nicknamed the project “D-day Land”, accusing the businesspeople behind it of reducing one of the bloodiest events in European history to a money-spinning tourist attraction.

“They talk 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, a former Sorbonne professor and novelist who is leading resistance to the plans, told the Guardian. “The ethical principle of this commercialization of history is extremely shocking.”

An artist’s impression of visitors to the proposed multimillion euro project watching footage of the landings. Photograph: Stéphane Roy/33 degrees Inc.

Régis Lefebvre, one of the people behind the project, disagrees. “We want to transmit the story of what happened with great historical rigor using today’s technology to make it interesting to the largest number of people. It’s a simple as that,” he said. “It’s not a theme park and we never called it D-day Land. That’s the name our opponents used. As for making money, who seriously sets up a business to lose money? In England you understand that.”

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A public planning consultation is running until 7 October. If the attraction is approved, it will be built on a 75-acre site at Carentan-les-Marais, inland from the American landing beaches Utah and Omaha (the British offensive centered on Sword and Gold beaches, and the Canadians came ashore at Juno beach). Its backers hope it will open in 2025 and attract 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 Normandy veterans.

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

“Make no mistake. The passing on of memories is see here as no more than a business opportunity … to give this project the go-ahead would demean and devalue pain and sacrifice, and present our fallen loved ones as mere curiosities in a money-grubbing entertainment venture.”

Lefebvre has the backing of the former defense minister Hervé Morin, the 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 private investment.

Morin said he fully supported the project as a means of “marrying memory and touristic development … done with dignity”.

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He added: “Honestly, as former minister of defence, do you think I’d be supporting this if I didn’t believe that? We have 5 million visitors to Normandy every year. Are people suggesting we should shut down all the businesses linked to the Battle of Normandy? Did anyone demand the banning of the film Saving Private Ryan?”

Charles Norman Shay, 98, an American veteran living in Normandy who took part in the first wave of landings at Omaha beach, has also given the project his blessing as an “appropriate” tribute to the fallen. Another veteran, Léon Gautier, 97, the last of the 177 French troops who took part in the landings, is reported to oppose it.

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

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

In recent years their numbers have dwindled as the old soldiers have died. In their absence, Hommage aux Héros aims to appeal to a younger audience, drawing visitors with a show in an amphitheater seating 1,000 spectators, telling the D-day story through actors and archive footage.

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

Gen Richard Dannatt, the British memorial chairman, said: “There are a lot of commemoration sites in Normandy, which is right and proper. Those where people go to pay their respects, like the British memorial, are free of charge 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 6 June 1944, said local museums were concerned that the new attraction would “cannibalize” visitors from them.

“A lot of people who have spoken to me about it are not very enthusiastic and some are dead against it. I suppose we have to see how it is done and hope it is not distasteful,” he said.

Penny Howard Bates, Howard’s daughter, said she thought the Hommage aux Héros idea was in poor taste. “To seek to exploit this momentous event in history along with all the tragedy and suffering – not least by the French themselves – would be considered an outrage by those who seek to honor relatives who died to liberate France and then Europe from the Nazis,” she said.


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