Montreal Mayor Jean Drapeau discovered after Expo 67 that a world’s fair can be a political football as well as a celebration of national pride. Last week French President François Mitterrand became the latest politician to prove the truth of that dictum, but this time before the fact. A tactical opposition ploy ended Mitterrand’s private dream of an Expo 89 to celebrate both the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution and his own Socialist government’s achievements. After going along with the project for two years, Paris Mayor Jacques Chirac, the country’s de facto Opposition leader, suddenly refused to throw the capital’s muscle behind it. And as Mitterrand cancelled the project, the government once more was seen retreating red-faced from a too-hastily hatched policy. Said the Paris daily Libération: “They have again given the appearance of excited humanists in an ivory tower, offering foreigners a new reason to make fun of us.”
Ironically, the idea for a world’s fair began with the dean of Chirac’s own Neo-Gaullist party, Marcel Dassault, the 91-year-old founder of the aircraft
firm that makes Mirage military jets. But, after sweeping into office two years ago, Mitterrand took the idea up as his own. With trademark lyricism, he dubbed it “a project for the third millennium” and promised—just as the revolution’s centenary fair had given France the Eiffel Tower—a showcase for lofty social ideals and his regime’s high-technology push. A study was ordered from Gilbert Trigano, the ebullient founder of the Club Mediterranée vacation empire, whom Mitterrand had appointed as his new commissionergeneral.
Trigano’s lavish preliminary plan called for a two-part site straddling opposite sides of the Seine. In turn, that entailed an elaborate river cleanup, the construction of gigantic floating platforms, a new mini-Métro and a flotilla of high-speed ferries to shuttle the anticipated 65 million visitors back and forth.
Twice Chirac promised the capital’s support for the scheme, which gained the International Expositions Bureau’s support over rival bids from Chicago and Spain’s Seville, which were awarded consolation dates in 1992 to
celebrate the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of America. But in recent months, as open warfare broke out between the Elysée Palace and Chirac’s city hall, the mayor’s support cooled. And in a calculated act of sabotage last week, Chirac and his regional supporters refused to give their consent to the fair. They argued that it would cost $800 million—four times the government estimate and almost twice Montreal’s. They also maintained that it would disrupt the capital’s traffic for four years and might necessitate a new Expo levy which would add significantly to France’s already heavy tax burden. As evidence of the financial drain, Chirac declared that Canadians were still paying for Montreal’s Expo 67 (Montreal will retire the remaining $5 million of its debt in 1989).
Two days later, a rueful Trigano advised Mitterrand that it would be impossible to go ahead without the capital’s co-operation. However, nothing in French politics is ever quite what it seems, and there are indications that Mitterrand was secretly content to abandon the project in view of France’s deepening economic woes. The announcement of the cancellation came within days of an admission by Prime Minister Pierre Mauroy that the government’s austerity plan would continue into 1984, a clear signal that his April anti-inflation package has failed to halt the slide. Mauroy warned that further tax proposals are in the pipeline.
Chirac’s about-face also gave the government a scapegoat for the cancellation. In his tight-lipped announcement, presidential spokesman Michel Vauzelle put the blame squarely on the NeoGaullist leader, and Socialist parliamentarians denounced the mayor’s “opportunism.” The government was also careful to leak parts of Trigano’s detailed rebuttal of the opposition’s charge that the fair would disrupt Parisians’ daily lives. Trigano had proposed staggering fair and business hours, and to meet an estimated shortage of 10,000 hotel rooms he had suggested that visitors bunk in, Club Med-style, with Parisians. Each host would have been given a computer. However, the chief effect of the debacle was to highlight the Socialists’ deteriorating relations with an opposition that Mauroy recently accused of threatening democracy.
In an ironic footnote to the dispute, an exhibition dealing with past world fairs opened last week at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. Originally intended to coincide with progress on Expo 89, it relates the tumultuous controversies of yesteryear. The irony, of course, lies in the fact that, despite the wrangling, those world fairs did take place.
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