Allegations of political favouritism as French theme park allowed to exceed Covid-19 crowd limit

Issued on: 17/08/2020 - 07:19Modified: 17/08/2020 - 07:20 A history-themed amusement park in western France

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Issued on: Modified:

A history-themed amusement park in western France was at the heart of controversy yet again over the weekend when organisers of a nightime show received permission to host 9,000 visitors despite restrictions on large gatherings amid a national spike in coronavirus cases.

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Nearly 9,000 spectators gathered at the Puy du Fou historical theme park in the Vendée in western France for a “Cinéscénie” multimedia show despite a nationwide ban on gatherings exceeding 5,000 people due to the Covid-19 crisis.

Local officials authorised the mass gathering on Saturday, sparking allegations of favouritism since Philippe de Villiers, a far-right French politician who founded the Puy du Fou, is a friend of President Emmanuel Macron, according to French media reports.

Macron denied the allegations on Sunday, with the French presidential office telling the weekly Journal du Dimanche there was no “intervention” by the president to allow the theme park to host spectators above the 5,000 people threshold.

Saturday’s event came as France’s health ministry reported 3,310 new coronavirus infections, marking a post-lockdown high for the fourth consecutive day, bringing the country’s total number of cases to 215,521.

Last week, France extended a ban on gatherings over 5,000 people -- which was supposed to expire August 31 --  to October 30. 

Park officials insisted Saturday’s event respected social distancing regulations. The authorisation was only “valid for August 15 … and only concerns the Cinéscénie”, Puy du Fou’s communications manager Sabine Tommy-Martin told AFP.

Cinéscénie, one of the attractions of the park, is a live nighttime show featuring historic battle scenes, dances and marches by actors. The shows are held after dark on Fridays and Saturdays from late June through early September, according to the Puy de Fou website.

Puy du Fou officials said the stands for the event were divided into three blocks, separated by plexiglass walls, to accommodate 3,000 people each. Ticket-holders had to wear face masks and sanitary gel was available, according to officials.

Critics slam ‘intervention’ by a ‘friend’

But the denials of favouritism and reassurances that safety measures were followed failed to placate critics, with Twitter users slamming the “hypocrisy” of the authorisation while France had imposed measures to control the spread of the virus.

“I’m pro-mask and for respecting [health] barriers … but how do you get the commitment of the people after what you have authorised for Puy du Fou?” one user wrote.

Isabelle Payen de la Garanderie, a school teacher from the Paris region, visited Puy de Fou in July, and said she felt reassured by the sanitation measures. She plans to take her 62-year-old mother to the spacious park this week, but said she would avoid the Cinéscénie.

“That worries me,” Payen de la Garanderie told FRANCE 24. “I don’t think that’s the thing to do at this time.”

Opposition politicians also slammed the authorisation. “Since [Emmanuel] Macron's personal intervention on behalf of his friend De Villiers, the Puy du Fou has been benefiting from a pass,” said politician Bastien Lachaud from the far-left France Unbowed party.

Julien Bayou, national secretary of Europe Ecology-Greens (EELV) party also castigated the contradiction between this authorisation and “the general incentives for physical distancing”.

WHO warns European authorities

It was the second time this summer that the Puy du Fou received permission to exceed France’s 5,000-spectator limit. The park created controversy when it obtained an exemption that allowed it to accommodate 12,000 people – divided into stands of 4,000 – for a Cinéscénie on July 24.

The theme park lowered the number of spectators to 5,000 following a report in France Télévision.

Saturday’s event reignited a debate about the special privileges enjoyed by Puy du Fou while most summer festivals in France, including the Avignon theatre festival, were canceled due to the pandemic. 

The debate came as senior WHO official Richard Peabody last week warned that lax control and implementation measures were leading to increased coronavirus case numbers across Europe.

“If you take ... the pressure off the virus, then it will come back,” he said to AFP, calling on European governments to be mindful of the lessons learnt in the first months of the pandemic.

The authorisation for the Cinéscénie, which was valid only for August 15, may be reissued for shows on August 21 and 22 after a “reassessment of the health situation” and on condition that “effective compliance with the commitments during the performance on 15 August”, Vendée officials told reporters.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)



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