Our Man in Paris: First floor for puppies, plates and perfume

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The Independent Online

Once upon a time, if you lived in central Paris and you needed to buy a lawn-mower in a hurry - or a puppy, or a mink-coat, or a concrete-mixer - you knew where to go. Samaritaine, the most eclectic and least fashionable department store in Paris - a Gallic version of Grace Brothers from Are You Being Served? - would sell you anything (diamond tiaras, pneumatic-drills, piranha fish, ready-mixed plaster, racing bicycles...).

Once upon a time, if you lived in central Paris and you needed to buy a lawn-mower in a hurry - or a puppy, or a mink-coat, or a concrete-mixer - you knew where to go. Samaritaine, the most eclectic and least fashionable department store in Paris - a Gallic version of Grace Brothers from Are You Being Served? - would sell you anything (diamond tiaras, pneumatic-drills, piranha fish, ready-mixed plaster, racing bicycles...).

Not any more. Samaritaine re-opened some of its art deco doors last week as a shopping mall devoted to designer labels and wealthy, foreign tourists. Another of the surviving land-marks of the old, unselfconscious, non-tourist Paris has vanished.

The store, once five separate buildings, now down to three, occupies a prime site on the Rue de Rivoli, five minutes from the Louvre and Notre Dame. Its slogan used to be: "Le Tout Paris vient à La Samaritaine" ("All of Paris comes to Samaritaine"). Its new slogan could be: "Le Tout Yokohama comes to Samaritaine".

Entering the old Samaritaine was like playing snakes and ladders. Each floor had several different levels, negotiated by short slopes of crumbling linoleum or by steep steps. To get from curtains to electrical goods, nominally on the same floor, you climbed a few stairs into showers and bathrooms, turned right and then strolled down a gentle but uneven incline towards hardware. Samaritaine once employed 3,000 staff, including some of the oldest, rudest and least-helpful sales assistants in Paris (and therefore the world).

All of this, alas, is being swept away. One of the three remaining Samaritaine buildings was re-born last week, after 18 months of renovation (le relookage in French) as an emporium for designer brands of clothes and perfume. When you walk into the new store, you are greeted by beautiful young women, all dressed in black and lime green, who say "bonjour" and smile.

The same fate is to befall the rest of the Samaritaine complex in the next couple of years. Until a few years ago, Samaritaine was, amongst other things, one of the biggest book shops in Paris, a pet shop, a travel agent, a toy store, a hardware store, an auto-accessories trader, a made-to-measure curtain-maker and a garden centre. Much of this is already gone or going.

There is still a pet shop, but you can no longer buy pets. You can, however, buy gourmet cat food and a eau de toilette for canines, called Oh My Dog!.

Three years ago, Louis Vuitton-Moët Hennessy (LVMH), the world's largest and most successful luxury-goods manufacturer, and owner of 45 opulent brands from Christian Dior to Givenchy, bought a controlling interest in Samaritaine. The company already owns the top dollar Le Bon Marché department store on Paris's Left Bank and two Japanese-thronged Louis Vuitton stores on or just off the Champs-Elysées.

The part of the Rue de Rivoli where Samaritaine stands is resolutely down-market but it is only a few hundred yards from the expensive tourist shops opposite the Louvre. LVMH is planning to shift tourist Paris a fraction to the east and convert Samaritaine into a power-house for its own, and other, luxury brands.

Samaritaine had been losing its customers - and loads of money - for years. Its traditional clientele has deserted to specialist shops or suburban shopping malls. (How, in any case, do you get a lawnmower, or a tank of piranha fish, home on the Metro?) In truth, most of Samaritaine's old customers - modest-income, DIY families and maiden aunts - have also migrated to the suburbs. Central Paris has become a land for the relatively rich, for young professionals and, of course, for tourists.

Samaritaine will survive in name, but it has already died in spirit - another step in the gradual conversion of the centre of the French capital into an upmarket theme-park.

Are public holidays a bridge too far?

In France, May is the most indolent month. Quite apart from the traditional epidemic of strikes, there are three public holidays: 1 May (Labour Day), 8 May (Victory over Germany day) and 29 May (Ascension Day). By a trick of history and the religious calendar, they always fall on the same day of the week - this year, on a Thursday.

By long tradition (established before the 35-hour week), if a public holiday falls on a Thursday, hundreds of thousands of people also take the Friday off. This is called a pont,or bridge, connecting the day off to the weekend. If the holiday falls on a Wednesday, some obstinate people take two days off to reach the weekend by way of un viaduc.

Next year, however, disaster looms. Since 2004 is a leap year (année bissextile), all three May holidays will fall on a Saturday. In France, when that happens, you lose the holiday. There is no day off "in loo" (or, as the French insist, en lieu).

There is worse to come. In 2005, all the May holidays will fall on a Sunday. In 2006, there will be no ponts because the holidays will fall on a Monday. Three years with no ponts and viaducs. How will the French survive? More strikes, presumably.

Keeping it real

Jean-Claude Trichet, the governor of the Bank of France and the possible next governor of the European Central Bank, is a fan of Ali G. He told a British visitor recently that he had discovered the satirist of street-cred on cable TV in Paris and thought that he was "magnifique" (English translation: "Respect, man. Dat is well wicked, aiii.") The visitor asked Trichet if he knew that Ali G was really a Jewish actor-comedian called Cohen. The governor's face dropped. "Non, ce n'est pas possible," he said, hugely disappointed.

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