Paris Stories

John Lichfield carries his basket round M&S's forlorn Paris store for the last time, wondering where the French will buy their British bangers in future. Meanwhile, at the baker's, he witnesses 'croissant rage'
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The Independent Online

A mournful, end-of-empire atmosphere descended on the Boulevard Haussmann in central Paris yesterday. At 3.30pm, Marks & Spencer closed its doors for ever. Not since Dunkirk has there been such a distressing British retreat from France. One almost expected a helicopter to land on the roof and fly away to Baker Street with the last pair of extra-large thermal underpants and the last jar of pickled onions

A mournful, end-of-empire atmosphere descended on the Boulevard Haussmann in central Paris yesterday. At 3.30pm, Marks & Spencer closed its doors for ever. Not since Dunkirk has there been such a distressing British retreat from France. One almost expected a helicopter to land on the roof and fly away to Baker Street with the last pair of extra-large thermal underpants and the last jar of pickled onions

The atmosphere in the final days was, however, more Moscow circa 1989 than Hong Kong circa 1998. More Marx than Marks. In the speciality food department, there were several million unsold boxes of Kenyan tea and shelves full of plum and sesame stir-fry sauce, but little that people wanted to buy.

Where were the crumpets, the mince-pies, the chicken tikka massala? All gone. There had, it is true, been an emergency, last-minute infusion of ready-made sandwiches and lettuce. But many shoppers were wandering around disconsolately with nothing in their baskets. Upstairs, the womenswear department was still well-stocked, despite a 40-per-cent-off sale (which, in itself, tells the story of the M & S continental demise). But the menswear department was roped off.

"Nothing left up there," said a jolly security guard. "Nothing left but the walls and even they have been sold." All of this suggests that, with more careful targeting, M&S could have kept a foothold on the continent. The flagship store on the Boulevard Haussmann was profitable to the end, other shops in France much less so.

There was a huge Parisian and expatriate clientele for M&S sausages, cheese, bacon, ready-made Indian meals and men's underwear. If Marks had retained a smaller shop somewhere in Paris, concentrating on the lines which sold well, it would have been a great success. Even now, there is a great business opportunity for Tesco or Sainsbury's to move in and keep the British sausage alive in Paris. All that remains, south of Calais, for British food addicts is a gaggle of speciality shops selling Branston Pickle at £5 a jar.

In its heyday, the Boulevard Haussmann store was one of the most fashionable spots in the French capital. Princess Grace of Monaco used to shop there, and not everyone believed her story that she was only buying stuff to give away to her charities. The last manager of the store, Guy Bodescot, recalls the confusion in the mid-1970s when M&S refused to supply French translations of its labels. The London headquarters gave way only when it was discovered that Parisians were buying packets of dried flowers and using them – unsuccessfully – as herbal teas. The first translations, supplied from London, were equally unsettling. M & S brand marmalade was guaranteed to be sans préservatifs, which means literally "without condoms".

 

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What makes the French angry? It can be a difficult question to answer. And fatal, or near-fatal, if you get it wrong. There is an odd passive-querulousness about Parisians especially. They will put up with an endless amount of rudeness and obstructiveness from public servants. They will accept – even enthuse about – strikes which disrupt their lives. What they cannot easily stand is one another.

Last Sunday I was standing in a queue in a bakery. An old lady in her eighties was ahead of me. She went off with her purchases and a minute later returned, saying that she had forgotten to buy something. The whole queue exploded in foul-mouthed anger, telling her that she was sotte (stupid), une emmerdeuse (a pain in the neck) and worse. She told them all to "Allez vous faire foutre" ("go and fuck yourselves"). She got her extra croissant. She was lucky. A few days ago, a woman of 23 was smoking on a metro platform, which is forbidden. A man remonstrated with her. She refused to put out her cigarette. He pushed her under a train. The incident made one or two paragraphs in the press.

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