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Paris tries to unchain Champs-Elysées

Customers sit at a cafe in the Publicisdrugstore, a unique shopping and restaurant complex situated on the Champs Elysees regarded as one of Paris' modern landmarks.

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MARK AUSTIN THOMAS: The grand boulevard of Paris just isn't what it used to be. The glamorous Champs-Elysées was once known as the most beautiful avenue on earth. Now it's turning into a commercial strip. High rents are driving out the quaint shops and they're being replaced with fast food chains and big retail stores. The government is fighting back. Eleanor Beardsley has this report.


ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: Serge Ghnassia's family-owned fur store Milady, has had a prime spot on the Champs-Elysées since the 1930s. But today Milady is one of the few boutiques left on the avenue. The fur shop's new neighbors include a BMW showroom, McDonald's and The Gap.

Ghnassia says there was a time when the Champs-Elysées meant something.

SERGE GHNASSIA: Before it was a very elegant avenue. People came very well dressed and they came for occasions. You know, like high-class shopping or to make a good restaurant or even to have a coffee but looking at the nice people, the nice cars. I mean it was really something very different than today.

The Champs-Elysées, which stretches from Napoleon's grandiose Arc de Triomphe to the Place de la Concorde, has always been an avenue of myth for the French.

It evokes images of 1950s movie star glamour and of crowds cheering Charles de Gaulle and allied troops after Paris was liberated from the Nazis. Perhaps that's why the city of Paris is trying to save it.

City officials' first step in that direction was to ban Swedish clothing giant H&M from opening a megastore on the Champs-Elysées last month.

Deputy Mayor Francois Lebel says the decision was nothing personal against H&M, but there are enough giant clothing retailers on the avenue.

FRANCOIS LEBEL [translated]: The Champs-Elysées is the very symbol of Paris and we simply want to conserve its traditional vocation as an avenue of promenades, culture, cinema and cafes, and not let it become like any old shopping mall.

Many say the avenues demographics also reflect its decline from chic to cheap.

Replacing the rich and famous strollers are gangs of youths who pour in from low-class neighborhoods in the Paris suburbs on weekend nights. 18-year-olds Marc and Pierre say they often meet their friends here.

PIERRE [translated]: The Champs-Elysées is the place to be for young people on a Saturday.

MARC: [translated]:Yeah, sometimes we drink too much but that's normal. But we like being here too, it's a beautiful avenue.

The democratization of the Champs-Elysées has also meant a heavier police presence, with round-the-clock patrols to ensure the safety of the avenue's 500,000 visitors a day.

Paris still fights to keep its favorite avenue something special, but like with New York's Times Square and London's Oxford Street, the change may just be inevitable.

In Paris, I'm Eleanor Beardsley for Marketplace.

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