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As Global Chains Move In, The Champs Elysees Gets A New Look

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Once known as the most beautiful avenue in the world, the Champs Elysees is changing. Some Parisians fear it's starting to look like any American shopping mall as high rents and global chains steadily alter its appearance.

"We just try to keep a sort of diversity on the Champs Elysees, with the cinemas, with restaurants, with cafes and shops," says Deputy Mayor Lynn Cohen-Solal. "We don't think the laws of the natural market, the free market, make for a good Champs Elysees."

Cohen-Solal says the Champs Elysees is being transformed by those skyrocketing rents. A Qatari firm recently bought the Virgin Megastore building and is doubling the rent. She says foreign investors now see the Champs Elysees as a place for real estate speculation.

Many French regard it as a horrible fate for an avenue that is not only a symbol of Paris but also a reflection of the French nation itself.

Connecting Napoleon's Arc de Triomphe with the revolutionary Place de la Concorde, the mile-long Champs Elysees was sculpted in the late 1600s by Louis the 14th.

Every summer, cyclists sprint up the Champs Elysees in a mad finish to the Tour de France bike race, and on Bastille Day French soldiers proudly parade down it.

The Germans marched down the Champs Elysees when they occupied Paris in 1940, and so did the allies when they liberated the city in 1944.

A Stroll Down The Avenue

Despite gloom over the avenue's future, the Champs Elysees is alive and well, says historian and author David Downie.

We meet at a restaurant, Fouquet's, a staple of the Champs Elysees since 1899, and take a stroll down the avenue.

"When people say that the Champs Elysees has gone downhill, it has in some ways because of all of these multinational corporate chain stores," Downie says. "In other ways, it looks better than it has in a long time. Look at all the buildings that have been restored."

Downie says trees and lampposts were planted and the sidewalks widened during a restoration in the early 1990s.

The Champs, as it is fondly called here, has had two big heydays, says Downie: from 1850 until World War I, the belle epoque, and from the end of World War II to the 1960s, when everyone wanted to be seen here.

Back then singers crooned about it, and Parisians and tourists alike flocked to the mythic avenue.

That atmosphere of romance and excitement was vividly captured in Jean-Luc Godard's classic film Breathless. Jean-Paul Belmondo plays a gangster who is shot on the avenue, and Jean Seberg is the American newspaper girl who hawks her papers there.

"The Champs Elysees has always had this intoxicating mix of glamour and sleaze," Downie says. "Big money, violence, deal making, and then the nightclubs and the people coming from all over the world, often with a lot of money."

Today, many small shops and cinemas have disappeared. But the Lido cabaret and a handful of luxury boutiques still hold on — they just rub shoulders now with places like The Gap and McDonald's.

Many Parisians say the Champs has lost its uniqueness, and has become like anywhere else. But not Parisian Jeanine Emmanuel, who was strolling the wide sidewalks with a smile on her face. Emmanuel, 60, says she used to come here as a student.

"I knew the Champs Elysees when it had many cinemas, and today it's clothing stores," she says. "It's different from when I was a student, but let's not exaggerate. The Champs Elysees still has its charm. Oh, yes, it definitely has its charm."

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