The flea-market traders of Paris declare rent war on billionaire duke's free-market plans

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The Independent Online

Battle was joined at the weekend between one of Britain's wealthiest men and the spiritual heirs of the poorest of the Parisian poor. Put another way, war was declared between the free market and the flea market.

Traders at the celebrated Marché fringes of the capital staged protests against their landlord, the Duke of Westminster. The antique dealers say a company he owns is trying to drive them out of business with steep rises in rent. "We are not for sale. Go back to perfidious Albion," said one tract distributed in the maze of shops and stalls which claims to be the largest antique market in the world.

The 400 traders at the centre of the dispute wore T-shirts and hats comparing themselves to Robin Hood or to Asterix, the cartoon Gaul whose village resists the invasion of the Romans. They presented themselves as small market traders resisting the ambitions of a foreign billionaire. In truth, many are wealthy and successful businessmen themselves although, in the further-flung parts of the Paris-Saint-Ouen flea market, far poorer people sell off single shoes or broken television sets.

The principal sections have developed over the years into winding streets of well-appointed shops which sell valuable antiques. Two of these sections, the Serpette and the Paul-Bert, were purchased two years ago by the Gros-venor group, controlled by Gerald Cavendish Grosvenor, the Duke of Westminster. The duke is generally reckoned to be Britain's third-wealthiest man, with a fortune estimated at £7bn. His property empire was founded on his inheritance of more than 100 acres of Mayfair and Belgravia in London's West End.

The traders say Gros-venor Continental Europe is trying to increase rents by 35 to 70 per cent. Some traders, they say, are being offered cash to move away. At the annual World Antiques Fair at the weekend, the traders wore blackT-shirts marked "Flea market in danger". They accused the duke of wanting to turn parts of the market into a series of glittering antique shops dealing only with the super-rich.

Worse, they said, many traders would be under pressure to sell over-priced replicas rather than authentic paintings or furniture. "That would mean we'd lose our soul," said Marc Maisons, who has run a shop in les puces since the mid-1980s.

The Puces de Saint Ouen, just outside the city boundary at the Porte de Clignancourt, is visited by 150,000 people each weekend. The further you walk, the cheaper the merchandise becomes. The market was originally an encampment of chiffoniers, or rag-and-bone men and women, who toured Paris picking up bric-à-brac in the 19th century. They were forbidden to live in the city and set up camp just outside the boundary. Little by little, parts developed into enclosed shops trading in genuine antiques.

Jacques Fay, the Grosvenor Continental Europe director in charge of the flea-market project, said: "There is a great disparity of rental rates between traders. We don't think this is fair and are trying to balance them, if necessary by threatening not to renew leases."

Fortune fit for a Duke

By Claire Ellicott

With a fortune of almost £7bn, Major-General Gerald Cavendish Grosvenor, the sixth Duke of Westminster, who likes to be addressed as 'Your Grace', was ranked Britain's third-wealthiest individual in this year's 'Sunday Times Rich List'. He topped the list as Britain's wealthiest individual for many years before being overtaken by Roman Abramovich, the Russian billionaire, and Lakshmi Mittal, the steel magnate. He is also Major-General of the Territorial Army. The Duke's fortune comes his ownership of property and 156,000 acres of land in Britain, including 300 acres of land in exclusive areas of central London such as Mayfair and Belgravia. He also owns large estates in Lancashire, Scotland and Cheshire, home to his family seat, Eaton Hall.

The Duke's international property development company, the Grosvenor Group, boasted an annual turnover of £508m in 2006 and managed property assets worth £11bn.

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