In one of the more curious episodes of the Covid-19 saga, French president Emmanuel Macron has sided with right-wing traditionalist Catholic and Eurosceptical politician Viscount Philippe de Villiers against his own prime minister by authorising de Villiers's Puy du Fou historical theme park to reopen before other public gathering places.
The exception made for de Villiers has exposed Macron to accusations of double standards, especially from the left. And similar to those levelled at British prime minister Boris Johnson for his reluctance to fire senior adviser Dominic Cummings.
"What a magnificent country, where the President not only personally decides to close public parks, but mobilises his defence council to reopen the Puy du Fou," said left-wing politician Raphael Glucksmann. "It's a pity for the Avignon festival that its director is not a far right-wing friend of His Majesty."
On April 13th, Macron announced that “big festivals and events which attract a large public cannot be held until mid-July at the earliest”. Avignon, France’s leading theatre festival, has been cancelled.
Macron messaged de Villiers last week that the defence council, which he chairs, has decided to reopen the Puy du Fou on June 2nd. “I will never drop the Puy du Fou,” texted Macron, “We cannot live only on supermarkets.”
In an interview with Le Figaro, de Villiers claimed Macron told him on the telephone, "We're going to be behind all the European countries. The Italians have reopened their borders. The French will be able to go to Florence, but not to the Puy du Fou. It's absurd."
Macron's decision has strained an already tense relationship with prime minister Edouard Philippe. Rumour has it that Philippe, who is more popular than Macron, may be sacked after municipal elections on June 28th. The finance, foreign and interior ministers are tipped as possible replacements.
De Villiers accused Philippe’s government of wanting to “euthanise”, “asphyxiate” and “break” his theme park. He clashed with Philippe in a 45-minute telephone conversation during which the prime minister told the rebellious theme park founder, “The virus is still circulating and scientists speak of a possible second wave.”
De Villiers called Philippe a “rigid technocrat” and suggested he was cowed by the possibility of lawsuits. The prime minister’s office said its only guideline was “the same rules for everyone”.
De Villiers is a former MEP who was long a rival and kindred spirit of far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen. He is known for virulently anti-EU and Islamophobic rhetoric. In 2009, he forged an electoral alliance with Irish businessman and Libertas founder Declan Ganley.
The Puy du Fou makes private donations to the Jérôme Lejeune Foundation, which supports Down’s Syndrome research and opposes abortion.
De Villiers considers the Puy du Fou his life’s work. One of France’s most popular theme parks, with 2.3 million visitors last year, it was scheduled to open for the season on April 4th. The park’s director, de Villiers’s son Nicolas, says it is losing €1 million for each day of closure.
The friendship between Macron and de Villiers started in 2015 when the two men, now aged 42 and 71, met by chance in a Paris brasserie.
In 2016, Macron visited the Puy du Fou as economy minister to then Socialist president François Hollande. Standing arm-in-arm with de Villiers, Macron declared, “Honesty compels me to tell you I am not a Socialist”.
Conservative magazine Valeurs Actuelles published a long list of topics on which Macron has consulted de Villiers and favours Macron has done for him.
In March 2019, when de Villiers was about to publish an anti-EU tirade titled, “I tugged on the thread of the lie and everything unravelled”, he dined with the Macrons at the Élysée.
It is difficult to understand what the pro-European, progressive Macron sees in de Villiers. This is all the more so because he sacked de Villiers’s younger brother Pierre as chief of staff of the armed forces for insubordination in 2017.
Some suggest it’s part of Macron’s broader attempt to befriend anti-establishment figures who represent rebellious currents in public opinion. Another explanation is that the pandemic has moved Macron towards the left and environmentalists and he needs de Villiers to reassure far right voters.