Paris: André Malraux, the novelist and minister of culture under Charles de Gaulle, told a French-American journalist in the 1960s that the Champs-Élysées — then considered the most beautiful avenue in the world — had “an American basement”. Today, American business and its brands are prominently aboveground on a Champs-Élysées that has largely lost its distinctive character and has become far less French.
In a movement that has only accelerated in recent years, a large part of the broad street has become overrun with outlets for clothing brands that most Americans would hardly consider haute couture or even exclusive. Banana Republic has just opened a store, and Levi’s has a massive new space, not far from the new H&M. They are joining, and competing with, the Gap, Nike, Tommy Hilfiger and Abercrombie & Fitch. At least Tiffany & Company is coming, replacing a burger joint.
The movie glamour that brought a young Jean Seberg to the Champs-Élysées 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.
The cool has faded amid the most recent mass-market invasion. Few Parisians who do not work in the neighbourhood go to the Champs-Élysées anymore, regarding it as a place for suburbanites and tourists, many of them rich Arabs who seek out the nightclubs.
“It’s an avenue that doesn’t exist in the minds of Parisians, in any case in their everyday lives,” said Céline Orjubin, 31, a writer who came to Paris from Brittany. “I don’t get an exotic feel out of the Champs-Élysées. It feels more like nowhere, because we find the same things as everywhere.”
The Champs-Élysées — the name means the Elysian Fields, a reference to its origins as fields and market gardens — has long played a central role in France. It began in the early 17th century, when the royal gardens of the Tuileries were extended by an avenue of trees. By the late 18th century, as Paris grew, it became a fashionable street, and the city took control of it in 1828.
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 honour the dead of the Revolution and the Napoleonic wars, the avenue became the site of military parades by both French troops and their conquerors. That included the Germans in both 1871 and 1940, and the Free French and the Allies after the Second World War. In some sense, it remains the symbol of a liberated France, for foreigners and the French themselves.
“In the 1950s and ’60s, the Champs-Élysées was the place to be,” said Jacques Hubert-Rodier, 58, an editorial 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.”
It has been a long erosion. He handed over a novel from his mother’s library, La Fille de l’Air, by Pierre Lamballe, the pen name for one of de Gaulle’s top aides, Pierre Lefranc, who died in January. Lefranc demonstrated against the German occupation on the Champs-Élysées in 1940, was wounded by a grenade and was arrested. He fought in the Resistance, worked for de Gaulle, and in May 1968, when the student uprising nearly overthrew the government, he helped organise a sprawling pro-de Gaulle demonstration, again on the Champs-Élysées.
The novel, published in 1983, is a light one, about a Frenchman taking advantage of a Parisian August to try to embellish his life and pick up women. But even the shape of the croissants at his favourite cafe on the Champs-Élysées had changed. “Things are no longer what they were,” he thinks.
Jean-Noël Reinhardt, the chairman of the Comité Champs-Élysées, a merchants’ association, says that, of course, the avenue has changed, as the world has.
“The Champs-Élysées is many different things at the same time,” said Reinhardt, who used to run Virgin stores here (also on the Champs-Élysées, but given the costly rents and the state of the music business, probably not for long).
“It represents France symbolically in the world,” he said, with the Arc de Triomphe, the annual Bastille Day military parade and the finish of the Tour de France. “For the French, 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 the wide footpaths along the avenue’s 1.9 kilometres. Nearly 200,000 Parisians work largely white-collar jobs in the area. They need to shop and eat, and many now seek fast food rather than leisurely lunches, which helps explain the four big burger restaurants (two McDonald’s and two Quicks), the sandwich shops and the chain outlets like Pizza Pino, Léon de Bruxelles and Chez Clément.
This is the third evolution for the avenue since the 1980s, Reinhardt said. Earlier, large stores like Virgin and big European retailers like H&M, Zara, Adidas and Nespresso moved in alongside traditional French brands like Louis Vuitton, Lacoste, Sephora and Peugeot.
The avenue remains important for marketing — Banana Republic and Abercrombie & Fitch have their only French stores there.
“We’re delighted to have them here,” Reinhardt said, while noting that for real luxury, there is the nearby Avenue Montaigne.
The final barriers fell only in recent years. In early 2007, the city refused permission for H&M to open a store on the Champs-Élysées, fearing the “banalisation” of the hallowed street into a shopping mall. In 2010, H&M opened its store with great fanfare, soon followed by the big American shops.
Reinhardt defends the variety. “We can’t change society,” he said, “but when you give people something they like, they come.”
Ideally, he 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.”
Parisians, he insisted, still come, and not just because the supermarket Monoprix stays open late. “Parisians come to the Champs for the culture, the movies, the Grand and Petit Palais, the Théâtre du Rond-Point and the Théâtre Marigny,” he said.
But when pressed, he conceded that with rents doubling over the past 15 years, cultural institutions are in considerable danger. The number of movie houses has been cut by more than half, to seven (though most now have multiple screens), and the small independent art houses just off the avenue, Le Lincoln and Le Balzac, are facing serious difficulties. The Champs-Élysées has lost two million movie tickets a year to other multiplexes in Paris, Reinhardt said.
He urges his association to use “a collective intelligence” and not drive away for quick profit the cultural showpieces that remain. “We hope individual owners preserve their interests but also the unique character of the Champs for the long term,” he said. “They have a heavy responsibility.”
The owner of Le Balzac, Jean-Jacques Schpoliansky, 68, is the third generation of his family to run the movie theatre, which was founded by his grandfather in 1935. Schpoliansky, the boss since 1973, brings a personal touch, greeting customers, giving lectures before showings and serving excellent coffee.
He has organised culinary nights at the movies with his friends, including the chefs Guy Savoy and Pierre Gagnaire. He shows films of opera, preceded by live performances by conservatory musicians, and films for children, including silent classics. 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,” 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.”
— New York Times News Service