French businessman defends plans to build Crimea theme park
A French theme park owner who has courted controversy by teaming up with a blacklisted Russian banker to build historical amusement parks in Moscow and Crimea defended his new partner on Saturday and criticised EU sanctions as a "reign of terror".
Philippe de Villiers is the founder of Puy du Fou, a hugely popular historical theme park near the western city of Nantes that was named the world's best amusement park two years ago.
But the announcement on Friday that his company is building new Russian versions of the park in Moscow and the Crimean peninsula, whose annexation in March was seen as illegal by the West, looks destined for controversy.
The projects are a joint venture between the Puy du Fou consortium and Russian banker Konstantin Valerevich Malofeev, who was placed last month on an EU sanctions list for allegedly funding pro-Moscow separatists in eastern Ukraine.
It was not clear on Saturday whether the deal constituted a breach of sanctions, since the 50-year-old Malofeev has been slapped only with an EU travel ban and assets freeze. Brussels and the French foreign ministry have yet to comment.
Villiers, 65, defended the billionaire on Saturday, calling him "a responsible man".
The sanctions on Malofeev "are based only on an offensive opinion -- he is criticised for declaring his love of Russia," Villiers told AFP by phone.
"The European Union has returned to a reign of terror."
His son Nicolas de Villiers, who is president of the Puy du Fou company, said EU sanctions would have no impact on their plans to build the multi-million-euro "Tsargrad" amusement parks in Moscow and Crimea.
"Puy du Fou is not sanctioned by the EU," he said, adding that it would be "unthinkable" to sanction the company "because we are going to create jobs in France and contribute to French influence."
He described Malofeev, a deeply religious Kremlin ally who made his fortune in private equity, as "a man who has great moral power".
France's foreign ministry has yet to comment on the Puy du Fou deal.
Praise for Putin
The agreement was signed Friday, a day after the elder Villiers, a former head of the nationalist Movement for France party, met with Putin in the seaside resort of Yalta in Crimea.
He spent nearly an hour with Putin in the onetime office of Tsar Nicolas II in the imperial summer residence, emerging full of praise for his host.
"Following the meeting, Philippe de Villiers said he was highly impressed with the grand vision and charisma of President Putin," said the Puy du Fou consortium in a statement.
"Many Europeans want to get out of the grind of sanctions. Europeans want peace. They have admiration for the sort of head of state you are," Villiers told Putin, according to the statement.
He added that "Europe's future does not lie with the American continent. It is written on the European continent. There is no future for Europe without Russia."
The Russian president responded that "he regards with the greatest interest the Puy du Fou project for a historic park on the history of Russia," the statement said.
Villiers told AFP on Saturday that the deal had been three years in the making. "It's an old dream that I've had for 10 years to one day go to Crimea."
'Not seeking controversy'
The Moscow park is planned to open in 2016 with the Crimean park opening in 2017, Nicolas de Villiers said.
He said Malofeev was investing 360 million euros ($480 million) in the Moscow "Tsargrad" and around 60 million euros in the Crimean version. Puy du Fou will be in charge of building work, creating around 50 jobs at its French headquarters.
"We are not seeking controversy," he said. "We are conscious that the situation is tense, particularly around the question of the Russian Crimea. However, it seems to us that organising a partnership between France and Russia is an act of peace."
Built in 1989, Puy du Fou became an unexpected success by combining history and theme park entertainment. It attracted 1.7 million visitors last year, rising to become the second most popular attraction in France after Disneyland Paris.