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The Japan Times
March 26, 1998
The Observer

Boulevard of broken English

Times are a-changin' on the Champs-Elysées


PARIS — Fouquet's is the most media-friendly of French restaurants. If you want to know about Parisian celebrities, their deals and their love affairs, go to the red-fronted establishment at the top of the Champs-Elysées. It all happens there — at anything between Ff265 and Ffl,000 a head.

In the 1980s, Fouquet's was the second home of President François Mitterrand's government. At a table permanently reserved by Budget Minister Michel Charasse, most of the Socialists' key economic decisions were made over a plate of caviar, fillet of whiting and a bottle of Sancerre.

But times are changing on the Champs-Elysées — and for the restaurant that has stood there for 99 years.

Fouquet's owner, Charles Casanova, is about to sell to a large company that of necessity will blow away the elitist, gossipy atmosphere. The focus will no longer be on actors and politicians. It will be on tourists.

The sale marks one of the last stages in the transformation of the Champs-Elysées. After decades of turmoil, the boulevard has once again become chic, but this time the emphasis is on global, not Gallic, chic.

During the first half of the century, the 1.9 km avenue was the place for rich Parisians to live, shop and dine (at Fouquet's and Le Colisee, with its famous aquarium, in particular).

But its heyday ended abruptly in 1965 when the RER rail network opened, delivering middle- and working-class suburbanites onto its tree-lined pavements. Soon, the Champs-Elysées was crowded with street vendors, and the rich decamped. After the street vendors came cheap cafes, in turn supplanted by McDonald's and Burger King.

According to recent surveys, today there are just 123 families living on the street, fewer than 10 of whom are in year-round residence. The other buildings are now offices.

In 1992, to counter the Champs-Elysées' slide downmarket, Paris' town hall launched a two-year, Ff240m renovation scheme that introduced broad pavements, elegant lighting, dark green newspaper kiosks and regiments of nocturnal street cleaners.

Out have gone Burger King and a popular but unglamorous cinema. In has come fashion house Louis Vuitton, with a luxurious glass-fronted store guarded by two large bouncers to deter the unwashed. The Elite model agency is rumored to be arriving soon.

The ongoing process of regentrification is most apparent on the south side. The north, with McDonald's and the odd karaoke cafe, still bears traces of its "lower-crust" period. But the effect of the cleanup is clearly illustrated by yearly rents on the Champs-Elysées: up from a maximum Ff20,000 per sq. meter two years ago, to around Ff30,000 today.

Rehabilitation has come with an international air, led by the British-owned Virgin Megastore and the American clothes chain, Gap, which both have prominent sites.

"In 1919, the shops were French and there were very few foreigners. In 1999, the opposite will be true," said Roland Pozzo di Borgo, president of the committee for the Champs-Elysées, a forum of local businesses.

Until now, Fouquet's ignored the changes taking place around it, maintaining its Gallic menu, clientele and intimacy. Yet behind the facade, its profits plummeted as the rent demanded by its landlord, a Kuwaiti firm, rocketed. Last year, Casanova went into voluntary liquidation with debts of Ff140 million, but still hopeful of finding a backer who would enable him to remain at the helm.

This now looks unlikely. The Partouche group, which owns 11 casinos and 18 hotels in France, has emerged as favorite to take over the restaurant. Heineken is also in the running. Analysts say a sale is imminent.

Whoever wins the battle for Fouquet's must inject large sums of money and a fresh gloss of luxury. To stay afloat, the restaurant will have to broaden its appeal from wealthy, influential Parisians to wealthy anybodies. Its faithful clientele accept that with Casanova will go its soul.

Like the rest of the Champs-Elysées, Fouquet's will be richer and a little less French.

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