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Culture : Paris Unveils 'New' Champs Elysees : A $45-million face lift restores the old luster to the famed boulevard.


PARIS — When the police swooped down on the Avenue des Champs Elysees five years ago, the magnificent artery that had catered to Paris high society, borne the remains of Napoleon, and thundered with the tanks of Nazi occupiers and Allied liberators was a sad sight indeed.

Hawkers ruled the narrow sidewalks, traffic clogged the side roads, neon lights flashed from the buildings, beggars mingled with the crowds and pickpockets roamed with abandon. The street was still a magnet for Parisians as well as foreigners. But, to many, greed and profit seemed to have supplanted taste and civility.

Within weeks, the police drove the hawkers away, confiscating everything from balloons and chestnuts to lithographs and soft drinks. And the street cleaning, as it turned out, was the beginning of a long climb back to respectability for the Parisian thoroughfare, which received its name 285 years ago.

Last week, after a $45-million face-lift, Paris Mayor Jacques Chirac dedicated the new look, saying the street had regained its prestige and, more importantly, reclaimed "the magical character which it had in the subconscious of the French and of foreigners."

"We want to give the Champs Elysees the luster of old," Chirac added.

To be sure, the rebuilding project, which works out to about $8,000 for each foot of the 1.1-mile-long avenue, has made the Champs Elysees more user-friendly.

Gone are the parallel access roads, paved over in gray, blue and white to form 60-foot wide sidewalks from the Rond-Point to the Arc de Triomphe. Those sidewalks, traversed by 200,000 people on weekdays and 300,000 on weekends, have been specially treated to make them resistant to oil stains and sticky chewing gum. And a new 850-space parking garage has been built underground.

A second row of plane trees, 227 of them, has been planted along the street, and strollers can park themselves on 51 new benches, made of dark tropical wood at a cost of $4,000 apiece. The bus shelters, telephone booths, newspaper kiosks and street lamps have been artfully redesigned, in cast iron, glass and stainless steel.

"It is just extraordinary," said Maurice Casanova, the owner of Fouquet's, the last remaining Belle Epoque-style restaurant on the avenue. "It's remarkable what has been accomplished. There are large pavements with no cars. There is space again for the people."

At the Lido, where mostly foreign customers take in the cabaret reviews while guzzling 800 bottles of Champagne a night, spokesman Bernard Etienne gushed: "It's fabulous. It's going to attract more tourists, and this will restore our international reputation. The Champs Elysees is again the show window of Paris."

Not everyone is pleased with the overhaul, of course. This is Paris, after all, where changes in the city scape are hotly debated among everyone from the bricklayers to the intellectuals.

Some strollers complain about the lack of flowers, for example. Other critics think the architectural styles clash. And still others say a country with more than 3 million people out of work could find better ways to spend so much tax money.

Le Monde, the daily newspaper of intellectuals, welcomed the broad pedestrian walkways, "which recall the avenue's original role as a promenade." But it contends that the project is "distorted" by an attempt to please all tastes. Modern benches and replicas of Old Paris street lamps, for example, create a jarring mix, it says.

"Not to choose was the worst choice of all," Le Monde said. "Each style is canceled out in a visual jumble."

Even supporters of the project agree that there is still more to do.

The root of the Champs Elysees' problem is not the sidewalks or the street itself, but rather the shops and businesses that have sprung up along it in the last two decades. In the 1960s, Gen. Charles de Gaulle described the street satirically as "the most beautiful avenue in the world, if you disregard the buildings that line it."

Long gone are the grand hotels, the haute couture shops and fancy restaurants that gave the street its special character in the 19th Century and well into this century. Gone too are the graceful townhomes and many of the cafes where Marcel Proust and others used to hang out.

They have been gutted for chrome-and-glass shopping malls, video-game arcades, automobile show windows, and fast-food restaurants, including a Burger King and a 400-seat McDonald's restaurant.

Now there is a new, two-story branch of the Disney Store and a three-story Virgin Megastore. The street is also lined with no fewer than 55 banks and 46 movie screens, which advertise mostly American films.

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