Panic in the boulevards ­ where will we expats buy our mince pies now?

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Tears. Denial. Anger. A sense of bereavement. And betrayal.

The faithful customers of Marks & Spencer ­ mostly women, mostly middle aged or elderly ­ gathered in disbelieving groups outside the French flagship store in central Paris yesterday. The shop was closed until today. The staff were in a marathon union meeting in the canteen.

The customers ­ some of whom had shopped here weekly since Marks & Spencer first invaded Paris (amid great fanfare) in 1975 ­ were devastated. "I can't believe it. It's not possible that they should just close," said Françoise Robert, 64. "This shop was a little piece of England. It was like your embassy. A great advertisement for England. The underclothes were solid. The clothes were good value, though perhaps not sufficiently young. And the staff was always very friendly, not like in those other places..." She swept her hand contemptuously towards the big, French department stores ­ Printemps and Galeries Lafayettes ­ on the other side of Boulevard Haussmann.

In Paris, the self-appointed capital of fashion and cuisine, dear old Marks and Sparks has created an unlikely band of devotees. For the British community in Paris, the two city-centre M&S shops (nine in total in the Paris area) were essential sources of resupply. But the same thing, it seems, was true for many French people. Where, they protested yesterday, are we going to buy our English cheeses? Our English sausages? Our Dundee fruit cake? Our frozen Indian food? Our mince pies at Christmas?

Where else in Paris can you buy men's trousers in ready-cut, inside-leg sizes? Or women's skirts in waist sizes that you can rely on? Where else can you buy plain, woolly jumpers so cheaply? And children's underclothes that do not disintegrate after the first wash? Louise Brisson, 70 ­ a longtime Marks & Spencer customer for its underwear and "formidable" sandwiches ­ refused to believe that the shops would close and shouted angrily at those who claimed otherwise.

"They're going to reorganise, bring in new directors and then I'll know they'll reopen soon," she insisted. She pointed to the fact that the Boulevard Haussmann store ­ the first Marks & Spencer on the Continent ­ was halfway through an expensive extension and refit, which would double its floor-space. No one would be stupid enough to spend all that money just to close the store? Would they?

But other customers and passers-by said that, while the food and typiquement Anglais items remained popular, the large men's and women's wear departments had lost their way. Some complained that the shop had not "moved with the times". It was ringard (uncool) to be seen in M&S clothes.

Yves Lequetle, 54, one of the few men among the bereaved, insisted that the great mistake of M&S in Paris had been to "move away from classic, English designs.

"They've been running after someone's idea of a modern pan-European style. But no one wants to go to Marks & Spencer for that," he said.

José Martin, a union leader at the M&S store in Lyons, said the staff had no idea whether the shops would be sold individually, or as a group, or simply closed down. "It doesn't make any sense to us," he said. "Many of these shops individually were doing well. The problem is with poor management in the centre. They are not going to save England by abolishing Europe."

Jeanine LeViels, 68, one of the bewildered customers outside the Boulevard Haussmann shop, was also one of the original employees. "It's like part of my life is being taken away. Tell everyone [in Britain] I am very happy to have worked there," she said and began to cry.