French fashion victim: Battle for the boulevard

It is one of the great attractions of Paris, but the diverse character of the Champs Elysées is under threat as high rents and global retail chains force out its cinemas, restaurants and cafés. By John Lichfield
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There is an old French pop song with the line, "Il y a tout ce que vous voulez aux Champs-Elysées". In other words, you can find everything that you could possibly want on the most beautiful and famous avenue in the world.

Thirty-seven years on, the song's claim is still plausible. Aux Champs-Elysées, you can dine in a starred Michelin restaurant. You can gobble a Big Mac. You can buy cheap knickers in Monoprix. You can join the young people with blond or light-brown hair (mostly Japanese) queuing to buy expensive leather goods in the new Louis Vuitton store.

You can watch tall, naked women (mostly Germans and Australians) dance at the Lido, although the elephant which used to be part of their act has departed long ago. Day or night, you have a choice between 40 movies in seven cinemas. You can buy a Cartiér tiara, a Renault Espace or a Minnie Mouse costume.

The man who wrote the song "Aux Champs-Elysées", Pierre Delanoe, died last week. Is the Avenue des Champs-Elysées also dying, spiritually? Is the world's favourite high street - 500,000 visitors a day on a summer weekend - doomed to become just another high street, another, grander row of Benettons and Gaps?

The city of Paris and the French government have promised action this year to halt the "banalisation" of the Champs-Elysées. Too late for the UGC Triomphe, one of the remaining seven cinemas on the avenue. There used to be 15.

The Triomphe, a four-screen cinema which specialises in relatively demanding movies, will close soon, forced out by an explosion in rental prices. The UGC Normandie, a bigger, mass-market cinema further up the avenue, is losing money and may also have to move. The boom in rents - which have quadrupled in 10 years -has been generated by a clamour for places on the Champs-Elysées from clothes and designer sportswear shops. Already, they occupy 39 per cent of the street-front retail space. If nothing is done, the town hall fears, the Champs-Elysées will go the way of parts of the Left Bank and become a mass-market fashion victim in the capital of high fashion.

Last month, the city's commerce committee refused permission for the Swedish clothes chain H&M to move into a building now occupied by Club Med. H&M is appealing and may win.

Lyne Cohen-Solal, the assistant mayor of Paris responsible for commerce, said: "We are determined to preserve the diversity of the avenue, its cultural activities, its restaurants, its shopping. It is crucial that the cinemas and cafés are not forced out."

François Lebel, the mayor of the eighth arrondissement, which includes the Champs-Elysees, said: "The avenue is balancing on a knife's edge. It is no longer exceptional. But it has not yet become banal."

Yet the notion that the Champs-Elysées is "in decline" and "threatened with banalisation" has been a regular feature of Parisian life since 1912. Then, the complaint was that the avenue was becoming too commercial. Homes, even wealthy homes, were being pushed out. The avenue's residential days are now just a memory. There are reckoned to be just 24 apartments on the whole two-kilometre stretch.

In the 1980s, the avenue was a dispiriting, scruffy sort of place, dominated by car showrooms and airline offices. The pavements were narrow and ugly, squeezed against the shop fronts by parking lanes for cars. News kiosks, street lamps and advertising columns were a chaotic jumble of old and pleasant, ugly and new. Rents were plunging.

In 1990, the then Mayor of Paris, Jacques Chirac, decided something must be done. The parking lanes were abolished. Broad new pavements were laid in large, pale-grey, granite slabs. More trees were planted. Elegant, new, old-looking street furniture was introduced.

Today, the Champs-Elysees is an infinitely more pleasant place to stroll. Despite the odd mixture of its architecture - everything from 19th-century belle époque to 1930s fascist - the sweep from the Etoile to Concorde is magnificent. At this time of year, the avenue is at its most alluring after dark. Two lines of fairy lights, strung with artistic insoucience in the trees, dance down the hill towards an illuminated Ferris wheel at the Place de la Concorde.

The suggestion that the avenue is also going downhill into mid-market, chain-store anon-ymity is partly true and partly misleading. If anything, the Champs-Elysées has become a two-way street, heading upmarket and downmarket at the same time. Its social geography is changing for the first time in two centuries.

The Champs has traditionally been divided vertically between its northern (more frequented) and southern (quieter) pavements. The avenue is now starting to split horizontally between an upper, more exclusive section near the Arc de Triomphe and a lower, more popular section.

The avenue was conceived in the 17th century as a grand west-east approach to the royal palace at the Tuileries. In the early 19th century, it was planted with elms and renamed after the Elysian Fields of classical mythology. To this day, the very lowest part of the avenue remains mostly a park, give or take a couple of theatres, a puppet show and a posh, power-lunching restaurant. When the middle and upper sections were built up from the early 19th century, the northern side - the right-hand side looking towards the Arc de Triomphe - became the more fashionable. The buildings faced the south and therefore the sun.

Today, the northern pavement has more cinemas, shops and restaurants and is more thronged with people than the southern side. But not for long.

A couple of years ago, Louis Vuitton opened a magnificent flagship store on the corner of the Avenue George V. The legendary Fouquets café and restaurant, recovered from a plunge into tourist vulgarity and near-closure, stands on the adjacent corner. Last year it enlarged sideways into a jet-set hotel, already regarded as among the top half dozen in Paris.

A little further up, in a dull stretch once occupied by Air France, Nespresso is about to open a high-class coffee shop, and coffee-making equipment store. All of these high-class developments are on the upper part of the avenue and on the once-neglected southern side.

McDonald's may seem like an intruder on the increasingly upper rarefied upper slopes of the Champs. In fact, the doyen of fast foods has been here since the 1980s and counts almost as much as a historic monument as Fouquets.

The global fashion invasion which worries the town hall is mostly evident down the hill towards Concorde. Here you can find the largest Adidas store in the world, which opened in October. Here also are Naf Naf, Zara, Gap, Benetton and Nike, a Virgin Megastore, a giant Sephora perfume and cosmetics shop and a cool, new beer emporium, called Culture Bière. The trend on the lower slopes is clear. The clothes and sportswear giants with long pockets see the avenue - with its annual average of 300,000 visitors a day - as not only a sales opportunity, but an advertising opportunity.

"We reckon that at least 150,000 people a day will pass our shop window, 70 per cent of them tourists," said Emmanuelle Gaye, the spokeswoman for Adidas in France. "They will see the label and what products we have to offer, and even if they don't buy straight away, they may buy later and in an other place."

In 1996, you had to pay €2,300 (£1,600) per square metre a year to rent potential retail space on the northern side of the Champs-Elysées. Rents for new or extended leases are now up to €10,000 a square metre.

But within months, the Paris will announce a "development" project for the Champs-Elysées. In November last year, a report by the Clipperton consultancy group, commissioned by the town hall, said the Champs - certainly the lower section - risked losing its identity as, first and foremost, a place of entertainment for Parisians. If nothing was done, it would become a giant tourist shopping mall.

Le Monde, in an editorial, pointed to the dire fate of part of the Boulevard Saint Michel on the Left Bank. Once thronged with bars and restaurants, the boulevard is now suffocated by chain clothes stores. After hours, it is dark and cheerless.

There is life in the Champs yet. The avenue remains an entertaining, even exciting, place to spend an afternoon or an evening. Its 332 businesses employ a staggering 170,000 people and have a turnover of €740m.

The fate of the Boulevard Saint Michel - and other fashion-chain infested parts of the left bank - is a stark warning, however. The 1969 French pop hit song "Aux Champs Elysees" was a reworking of a British song. Its name was Waterloo Road.

The first line of the French version is "Je m'baladais sur l'avenue le cœur ouvert à l'inconnu". ("I strolled along the avenue, my heart open to the unknown") If nothing is done, the Champs faces a Waterloo of its own. The "most beautiful avenue in the world", or at least the lower part of it, will be suffocated by the banal and all-too-known.