Jan 6, 2008
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Paris' Champs Elysees succumbing to chain-store invasion

Jan 6, 2008

PARIS, Jan 6, 2008 (AFP) - The famed Champs Elysees avenue in Paris, where Charles de Gaulle celebrated liberation from the Nazis, has lost another round in its battle against an invasion by global chain stores.

Champs Elysées - Photo : Jean-Pierre Muller/AFP

Faced with skyrocketing rents, the last small privately-owned pharmacy on the Champs-Elysees closed last week and the post office will soon follow suit, unable to meet the demands of property barons.

"It's over for small business. They don't want us anymore," lamented Ludovic Aissy, who ran the decades-old Lincoln pharmacy for nearly 30 years, filling prescriptions and offering a small selection of beauty products.

"The Champs-Elysees are just one big showcase for global brands," said Aissy, who was forced to close down his business on December 31 after the owners withdrew his lease.

Aissy had successfully challenged in court an attempt by the owners to double his rent, already hovering at 10,500 euros (15,500 dollars) per month, when they decided to end his contract altogether.

With the majestic Arc de Triomphe at one end and the Tuileries Gardens at the other, the Champs Elysees has fuelled much debate over its commercial development since a Virgin Music super-store opened its doors in 1988.

Over the past two decades, movie houses, small shops, cafes and restaurants have been replaced by a string of mega-shops like the US clothing retailer Gap and luxury brands such as Louis Vuitton.

Amid a growing public outcry, authorities in late 2006 turned down a request by the Swedish clothes retailer H and M to open an outlet on the Champs Elysees, touted as the most beautiful avenue in the world.

"Our concern is that the Champs Elysees will become a mall, offering exactly the same shops that can be found in London or Los Angeles," said Francois Lebel, the mayor of Paris' 8th district which encompasses the avenue.

Lebel said city authorities had little leverage to prevent commercial rents from hitting the roof and driving out small businesses on the Champs Elysees.

"The question now is what is going to open in their place," he said.

"We want to re-direct development on the Champs-Elysees, focus on everything that promotes France's image: luxury goods, fashion, culture and leisure," said Lebel.

When one of the Champs Elysees iconic venues, Le Fouquet's restaurant, was threatened with closure, city authorities moved in and declared the establishment a historical site, granting it a de facto buffer.

"City authorities want to maintain a balance," said Philippe Vincent, the head of the Clipperton Development firm that conducted a major study in 2006 for the concerned local business community.

"The Champs-Elysees is a symbolic venue that evokes something other than shopping," said Vincent.

In 1998, one million football fans descended on the Champs Elysees to celebrate France's World Cup victory and the avenue hosts the annual Bastille Day military parade on July 14.

Nicolas Sarkozy triumphantly rode down the avenue in May after he won victory in the presidential election, as had Jacques Chirac and presidents before him.

Rents on the Champs Elysees are the third-highest in the world, behind Hong Kong's Causeway Bay and New York's Fifth Avenue, and the avenue is the second most visited site in France after the Eiffel Tower.

Unease over the Champs' commercial development has been compounded by recent reports of a rise in violent crime in the area, with police statistics citing an increase of 32 percent in assaults in 2006.

The closure of the post office, which served the 24 families who live on the Champs Elysees along with the countless businesses and tourists, has reinforced concern over fewer services in the neighborhood that underpin community life.

by Carole Landry

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