This is not just Marks & Spencer – this is French Marks & Spencer

Store crosses Channel for first time in a decade to open flagship outlet on the Champs-Élysées

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The Independent Online

Chicken jalfrezi ready meals, Percy Pigs and Per Una underwear return to the Champs-Élysées today a decade after Marks & Spencer's retreat from Paris prompted protests and the opening of a book of condolences.

The peculiar affection for the British retailer remains undimmed in the French capital, where the store's chief executive, Marc Bolland, announced its return to the 8th arrondissement.

While some shrugged off the opening of the outlet, a loyal following of well-heeled French housewives were pressing their noses up against the windows in anticipation yesterday.

"We love their sandwiches, little cakes, shoes, trousers," said Chantal Bruno and Nicole LeClerceq yesterday. "When the shops closed before, we went to London because we couldn't bear not to have M&S clothes. Paris is not the capital of style, Marks & Spencer is," they added.

Interest surrounding the opening of the three-storey shop in the shadow of the Arc de Triomphe underlines the scale of the mistake made by the retailer's former management in 2001.

M&S closed its 38 stores in continental Europe to concentrate on its British business. It had 18 stores in France, of which 10 were in Paris.

The retreat followed a catastrophic fall in sales in the late 1990s but was described later by former chief executive Stuart Rose as a "tragedy".

Although the good times returned, the launch in France comes at a difficult time for the company, which has announced an 8 per cent fall in half-year profits.

Meanwhile, the 10-year lease on one of the most expensive pieces of real estate in the heart of the troubled eurozone will cost the company £50m over the next 10 years.

Marks & Spencer plans to open five other stores in the city and is searching for suitable premises for more of its Simply Food outlets. A French-language website has also been launched.

Mr Bolland confirmed the roll-out plans at a reception for the French media last night and today he will be joined by the supermodel Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, who was recruited as the face of the store's latest ad campaign this year alongside the actor Ryan Reynolds.

"We've had numerous requests from consumers in France for our food and clothing, so we're pleased to be coming back to serve French customers once again," Mr Bolland said.

Parisians have spent 14 weeks watching work on the shop take place. But not everyone was excited. "I don't think I will buy the food, English food isn't very good for your diet, all that pudding," said Vivienne Winterrath.

M&S in France: A history

The first Marks & Spencer stores opened in Paris and Lyon in the mid 1970s and despite the nation's ongoing appreciation for the British retailer, it fell victim to a Continent-wide retreat in 2001. The decision to shut 38 stores across Europe followed the company's extraordinary collapse in profitability – down from £1bn in 1998 to just £145m three years later. The withdrawal infuriated both its 1,700 French workers and loyal army of customers. A book of condolence was opened at the branch on the Boulevard Haussmann, while sit-ins, protests and a legal challenge were mounted by unions.

In 1985 a Paris branch was rocked by a bomb, attributed to Hezbollah, placed near the entrance. It injured 14 people and killed the store's warehouse foreman.

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