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but what is the Puy du Fou playing at?

The Puy du Fou is lying. Puy du Fou manipulates history for ideological purposes. Here is the double thesis of the book published by four historians in March 2022 entitled the Puy du faux. Investigate a park that distorts history (The arenas).

While the famous Vendée park is celebrating its 45th anniversary and has embarked on all-out projects (cinema, international development in Europe and China, train-show, etc.), has this book thrown a stone? in the pond or rammed open doors? The management of the park, for its part, chose to ignore the controversy, referring the dissatisfied to its popular success.

At first, everyone seems to agree that the shows in the park – whose theme is the history of France – are filled with inaccuracies that are obvious to any historian. But, really, is it so serious? Isn’t Puy du Fou a simple amusement park whose shows everyone knows have no claim to historical truth?

Errors in the service of a political discourse

“On the contrary, we believe that what is played at Puy du Fou is serious and that it is not just about entertainmentanswers Pauline Ducret, one of the authors of the book, associate professor of history at the University of Reunion, specialist in ancient history. The park presents itself as making history. They even have educational content for children and ready-to-use lesson sequences on their site so that the shows can be used as a basis for the history lesson. »

That there are errors is however not embarrassing in itself, affirms the historian who indicates that she wants to avoid any moralizing posture. The problem would rather lie in the “political propaganda” broadcast by the shows. “We show in our book how these errors are chosen, built in the service of a political discourse, moreover assumed by its creator, Philippe de Villiers. »

A petrified French identity

Beyond an obvious anti-republican statement to the glory of the Vendée insurgents during the revolutionary period, the four historians bring to light a framework woven from show to show that establishes the idea of ​​a petrified French identity – “eternal” as the others – united around an always benevolent aristocratic power, in a rejection of modernity. “It is not history, but the dream of an immobile past, frozen in all respects, of a bygone golden age”they write.

A ” fiction “a “fantasy”which would not satisfy the visitors’ quest for history since the shows would only rehash “old images (…) lazy”. In fact, each show behind which we easily recognize the pen of Philippe de Villiers, distills in the heart of the visitor a nostalgia increased tenfold by the beauty of the staging.

“However, spectators do not always realize the power of this political discourse”, notes Pauline Ducret, in particular the school public who go there in large numbers each year (of which she herself was a part as a child twice with her public school in Vendée). This is where the real danger lies. “Our book is not here to destroy people’s admiration for the shows, but so that those who have imbibed certain ideas can deconstruct them. » In sum, “we do nothing but our job”concludes the historian.

A vision at the Downton Abbey

But this analysis is not unanimous among historians, some of whom believe that the park is harmless. “There is a huge misunderstanding about the different layers that the word “story” can cover.says a historian who wishes to remain anonymous. The authors of Puy du faux are unable to break out of the academic mould. They criticize the Puy du Fou for not respecting the scientific method, but it is not for a park to do so. »

In short, denouncing the park’s scientific and ideological wanderings would amount to hiding one’s face from the very principle of a historical spectacle which, by definition, consists of telling a story with a bias and a fictional dimension that arouses emotion. Unlike historians who, although they may be sensitive to certain political discourses, are paid to keep their prejudices at bay thanks to the safeguards of the scientific method.

As for the ideology conveyed, the historian tries to make sense of things: “This idea of ​​an eternal, Christian, fantasized France is open to criticism, but it is assumed by Puy du Fou. From a historical point of view, the shows on the Vendée are the most troublesome, but for the vast majority of the others, it is above all a story with golden glasses, very consensual. » An approach which, according to him, resembles that adopted in the British series Downton Abbey : “The series had been criticized in the UK for this vision of a lost golden age where social classes lived in perfect harmony. »

But with the development of the park’s activities internationally, the anti-republican dimension in Vendée should probably fade away in favor of a more “mainstream”believes this historian, who detects in the successor of Philippe de Villiers at the head of the park, his son Nicolas, “a more business side”.

National novel with Vendée sauce

For Patrice Gueniffey, great specialist of the Revolution and the Empire, disciple of François Furet, “the place of ideology is limited to Puy du Fou”. “There is no malignant and conspiratorial intention to question the republican narrative of the history of France. On the contrary, the Cinéscénie (the great evening show, editor’s note) brings into this story the great French tragedy that was the Vendée wars, which remain unsaid on the left. The first part is rather catholico-royalist anti-revolutionary, but the second reconciles everyone in patriotism at the time of the war of 1914 then that of 1940. These wars remake a people that the Revolution had divided. It is a way of saying that we are the heirs of all our history, even contradictory. »

A “national novel” accommodated in the Vendée sauce, in short. Not a history book, but a story “a little simplistic, but which gives an awareness of time and allows identification and admiration”believes Gueniffey. “Staging history condemns simplification”, he recalls. But the historian is convinced: this way of doing things can make historical culture accessible to as many people as possible.

Could the Puy du Fou ultimately do a useful job? This is the opinion of Arthur Chevallier, editor at Passé Composite, who criticizes “a lack of relaxation on this subject”. This young historian, curator of the exhibition Napoleon at the Grande Halle de la Villette in Paris in 2021, defines himself as pro-revolutionary and says he contests Philippe de Villiers’ vision of the Vendée wars.

“Le Puy du Fou works because it is simple, in the best sense of the word, does he think. People go to Puy du Fou because the shows are beautiful and well done. They are happy to find things they know, traces of a past that belongs to them. » Is it dangerous? “Parents or teachers can very well explain to children that the shows on the Vendée are only a partial reading. »

Should we deconstruct at all costs?

But isn’t that lacking in ambition? “The Puy du Fou can be the source of a passion for history, first recognizes Pauline Ducret, just like historical fiction. But do we need a frozen narrative to interest in history? And isn’t that misleading the spectators about what this discipline is? We don’t need to be reassured about our images of the past all the time to be passionate about history. »

A member of the jury for the Château de Cheverny prize for historical comics, the historian nevertheless recognizes the importance of historical fiction. “We don’t want to put an academic behind every production, or smash creativity in the name of history, but these fictions don’t need to be so politically oriented or so simplistic. »

On the educational level, some historians doubt the harmful nature of the “old images” conveyed by the park, including for schoolchildren. Should they be deconstructed at all costs, as the four historians of the Puy du faux ? “Starting with snapshots can be a first contact with history, it allows you to anchor representations of the past, says historian Charles Mercier. Learning then consists in going from image to image that is more and more adjusted to reality. »

The academic recognizes nevertheless that the discourse conveyed by the park can “freeze a certain number of people, already invested in an ideological battle, in a historical representation that they will consider as the truth”. Probably a minority of spectators in the park, who often worship Philippe de Villiers.

For Arthur Chevallier, the important thing lies, basically, in the multiplicity of stories: “On Arte, Fanny Glissant’s documentary on slavery did very well. There is room for everyone. I even observe a race for the popular transformation of the subjects which interest the general public today. » As a good liberal, the historian thus trusts in the freedom for everyone to propose their reading of history, which in any case will never be objective.

While the far right has never been so strong at the polls in France, the cultural battle around history has a bright future ahead of it. But beyond the ideologies that clash, the Puy du Fou controversy covers a fundamental debate on our conception of history. “An emancipatory science”claim the authors of the Puy du faux in their conclusion, the objective of which is to deconstruct our prejudices. “The mythical story of our origins”, would probably answer Philippe de Villiers and his successors at the Puy du Fou, made of heroes and great battles. Are they forever irreconcilable? For now, the debate is struggling to emerge from trench warfare.
To read
Le Puy du faux, investigates a park that distorts history, The Arenas, 2022.

The book-investigation of the musketeers of historical science
“A guide to critical reading. » This is how the four historians Pauline Ducret, Florian Besson, Guillaume Lancereau and Mathilde Larrère define their book-investigation on the second most visited amusement park in France after Disneyland. Like musketeers of historical science, the four friends set off to visit the Puy du Fou, Bic pen in hand as a foil – but not without “humility” in the face of the popular success and the technical prowess of its shows. Methodically, they point out the errors, but above all what they mean on the ideological level: monarchist nostalgia, disgust with modernity, eternal Christian France… The examination is meticulous, always dependent, sometimes bordering on bad faith. But reading is beneficial for those who want to take a step back from this myth-making machine that is the Puy du Fou. We will note an interesting analysis on the idealized vision of the Christian religion – Catholic –, always shown as pacifying and omnipresent. “Christianity is not only presented as the soil in which our country would have grown, but as the heart of its identity”, writes the author of this chapter. It also shows how religion is presented as a spontaneous popular spirituality, which dispenses with intermediaries such as clerics. This is also the bias of many series, films and medieval festivals, he notes: “The clergy is under-represented despite occupying an essential place, socially and numerically. » All committed to popularizing history, the authors ultimately regret a “terrible mess”, because “You don’t learn anything at Puy du Fou”. And it is true that visitors wishing to better understand the outbreak of the Vendée wars will leave Puy du Fou without a clear idea on the subject, but with images, costumes, music that will have deeply touched them… Perhaps will open- Is there then a history book? It is to be hoped.

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