Famed Paris avenue tries to recover Elysian status A journey abroad

February 16, 1992|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,Staff Writer

PARIS -- If you sit in Fouquet's on the Champs-Elysees, sheltered beneath its thick red awning, you can see through the bare winter trees across the street to the Burger King.

It is a long way from here to there, from $5 for a tiny cup of coffee in Fouquet's to less than that for a whole meal in the other place.

They are chiseling up the concrete at the entry to Fouquet's snug terrace to lay a new line of brass plaques for the names of future movie stars.

The Burger King also decorates with movie stars, old black and white photos of the likes of Robert Mitchum, James Dean and Catherine Deneuve.

No one would be surprised if Miss Deneuve walked into Fouquet's. Should she ever appear in the Burger King, they'd probably fall over.

Still, the distance between Fouquet's and "le restaurant du whopper" grows shorter and shorter, a process for which the French have found a word. It is "banalization."

It is on everybody's lips. Jacques Chirac, the mayor of Paris, used it to describe the Champs-Elysees' slow descent into the realm of the commonplace.

Commonplace? Banal?

They are hardly words associated with the Champs-Elysees, that beautiful avenue lined with sycamores that sweeps down from the majestic Arc de Triomphe to its culmination in the immense plaza at the Place de la Concorde.

It was created in the heart of the French capital in 1667 on the order of Louis XIV, a 2-kilometer extension of the vista from the Louvre Palace, through the Tuileries Gardens up to what is now the Place Charles de Gaulle.

The Champs-Elysees was a magnet from the start for the fashionable people of Paris, and for tourists foreign and French. It was a venue for the wealthy, aristocratic and artistic, for slinky women and men who wore their coats as capes. It is the street down which many a victorious army marched in pride and splendor, not all of them French.

Chic. That is the more familiar adjective one thinks of in connection with this street. And if you came from a place that didn't have any chic, and wanted to know what it was, this was where you found out.

Chi no more

Not any more. At least not so much. The Champs-Elysees, over the past 10 years or so, simply became too popular. Too many people, not chic by anybody's definition, have been drawn to the glittery artery through Paris' Eighth Arrondissement. The neighbors have complained.

Abdo Belmehdi, the earnest young deputy manager of the Burger King, is not at all unhappy about the way things have gone.

Change, he says philosophically, is everywhere. "It's the same over on the Boulevard San Michel, the Left Bank, it's the same all over Paris."

He looks out of his shop, across toward Fouquet's. "All kinds of people come here now," he said. "They say that this is banalization. The people who live near the Champs don't like the change. They have something in their heads, an image of 10 years ago. But it is different now."

Mr. Belmehdi looks again into the wintry street. "There's nothing wrong with it," he says. "It is still the most beautiful avenue in the world."

But for some there are too many leather jackets around late at night, too many motorcycles, too many teen-agers, too many garish signs on the buildings, too many tawdry shops, too many street vendors, and far, far too many cars.

There are no longer any top-ranked hotels on the street since the sumptuous Claridge closed in 1977, a place Cole Porter celebrated in an unpublished song:

That building there, upon the right,

Is the famous Hotel Claridge.

It's where the ladies go at night,

When they get fed up with marriage.

Now the Claridge has a shopping arcade on the ground floor and offers furnished rooms in the upper stories.

And there are on the avenue more airline offices than one would think there are airlines, and automobile dealerships, pizza places, movies, video arcades and fast-food restaurants. If the Champs-Elysees was ever about something, it wasn't fast food.

How did it happen?

There are various answers to that. One is the special subway service that opened about 10 years ago into the suburbs. It gave fast, efficient commuter service -- as well as ready access to the city center -- to tens of thousands of suburban youths looking for a place to hang out.

Where better than the Champs-Elysees?

Tourists came, as they always did. But the big package tours of the late 1970s and 1980s brought millions of foreigners without too much money to spend, and Americans with weak dollars.

They, and the suburban youngsters, were the perfect clientele for the McDonald's, Burger Kings, and various French imitators.

All of this coincided with the withdrawal in the late 1980s of the prodigal Arab princelings, who used to come to squander their oil money in the designer shops.

With all these forces working on it, the old Champs-Elysees just went down market, as they say.

A renaissance

So what is being done?

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