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An evolving Champs-Elysees has taken a pedestrian turn

By Steven Erlanger | The New York Times | Updated: 2012-09-23 08:00
PARIS - The movie glamour that brought a young Jean Seberg to the Champs-Elysees to meet Jean-Paul Belmondo, her handsome gangster "dragueur," or skirt chaser, is long gone, as are most of the sights in Jean-Luc Godard's famous film of 1960, "Breathless," a kind of French hymn to American culture and cool.

Few Parisians who do not work in the neighborhood go to the Champs-Elysees anymore, regarding it as a place for suburbanites and tourists.

In recent years, a large part of the broad street has become overrun with outlets for clothing brands that most would hardly consider haute couture. Banana Republic has just opened a store, and Levi's has a massive new space.

They are joining the Gap, Nike, Tommy Hilfiger and Abercrombie & Fitch. Earlier, large stores like Virgin and European retailers like H&M, Zara, Adidas and Nespresso moved in alongside traditional French brands like Louis Vuitton, Lacoste, Sephora and Peugeot.

"It's an avenue that doesn't exist in the minds of Parisians, in any case in their everyday lives," said CEline Orjubin, 31, a writer who came to Paris from Brittany. "It feels more like nowhere, because we find the same things as everywhere."

The Champs-Elysees - the name means the Elysian Fields, a reference to its origins as fields and market gardens - has long played a central role in France. Connecting the Place de la Concorde, where Marie Antoinette and many others died at the guillotine set up during the French Revolution, to the Arc de Triomphe, which was inaugurated in 1836 to honor the dead of the Revolution and the Napoleonic wars, the avenue became the site of military parades by French troops and their conquerors.

"In the 1950s and '60s, the Champs-Elysees was the place to be," said Jacques Hubert-Rodier, 58, a writer at Les Echos, which used to have its headquarters on the avenue. But "it's no longer a Parisian place," he said, adding, a touch sadly, "It's no longer a place for lovers."

Jean-Noel Reinhardt, the chairman of the ComitE Champs-Elysees, a merchants' association, says that the avenue has changed, as the world has.

"For the French," he said, "it's the shop window of global commerce, a bit like Fifth Avenue in New York."

More like Times Square, actually. About 300,000 people daily, and 500,000 on weekend days, walk along the avenue's two kilometers.

Ideally, Mr. Reinhardt said, the avenue is "a place of commerce, culture and leisure, a place where you can promenade from the Arc de Triomphe to the Tuileries gardens, drink a glass of wine or have lunch."

But he conceded that with rents doubling over the past 15 years, cultural institutions are in considerable danger. The small independent art houses just off the avenue, Le Lincoln and Le Balzac, are facing serious difficulties. The Champs-Elysees has lost two million movie tickets a year to other multiplexes in Paris, Mr. Reinhardt said.

The owner of Le Balzac, Jean-Jacques Schpoliansky, 68, is the third generation of his family to run the movie theater. He has organized culinary nights at the movies and shows films of opera. He has a newsletter and a club of loyal viewers. And he has carved out two more small screening rooms from what was once the lavish Art Deco lobby and his grandfather's office.

But ticket sales are down. With one screen in the 1950s and '60s, Le Balzac sold 400,000 tickets a year. Now, with three screens, it is 160,000 to 170,000.

"We need to preserve the variety of the avenue," Mr. Schpoliansky said. "It's important for France. It's my duty to get them to come back and forget the image of a street losing its soul."

Elvire Camus and Maia de la Baume contributed reporting.

The New York Times

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