Heritage

The Triumphant Return of the Champs-Elysées

Abandoned by locals and awash with tourists and international retailers, the world’s most beautiful avenue is refusing to become the Paris equivalent of Times Square. Made famous by cultural references such as the song by French-American crooner Joe Dassin and the movie Breathless starring Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo, it is now getting a makeover in the run-up to the 2024 Olympic Games.
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© PCA-STREAM

A sign on the railings around the trees lining the Avenue des Champs-Elysées reads: “Paris is committed to maintaining the cleanliness and beauty of the city and the Olympic Games.” With just a few months to go before the major sporting event, the capital has embarked on an ambitious spring clean. And officials have decided to start with the iconic avenue connecting the obelisk on Place de la Concorde – a gift to France from the viceroy of Egypt, Muhammad Ali, in 1836 – and the Arc de Triomphe, a monument commissioned by Napoleon and inaugurated the same year. From pruning plane trees and repairing sidewalks to sprucing up terraces and renovating the 146 public benches, the municipal services are hard at work. Everything must be perfect to welcome the millions of visitors expected from July 26 to August 11.

This makeover has arrived at just the right time. Jam-packed with pizzerias, bagel shops, car dealerships, and ready-to-wear brands like Zara and H&M, the elegant thoroughfare created by Louis XIV has become a depressing, chaotic bazaar. André Le Nôtre would not recognize his Grand-Cours originally lined with elms and lawns. The same could be said of Thomas Jefferson, who lived at number 92 when he was ambassador to France between 1785 and 1789, and of William Kissam Vanderbilt, the American railroad magnate’s grandson, who owned a mansion at number 138. Today, the smells of French fries, roasted chestnuts, and crêpes (depending on the season) mix with perfumes wafting from Guerlain and Sephora. The Champs-Elysées has become a tawdry marketplace invaded by Parisians just four times a year – for the Bastille Day parade, the arrival of the Tour de France, the Christmas illuminations, and the New Year celebrations – but neglected the rest of the time. In 2019, locals accounted for just 5% of the 100,000 daily visitors (compared with 68% tourists).

Félix Benoist, Avenue des Champs-Elysées from the Top of the Arc de Triomphe, ca. 1850.

Visionary former culture minister André Malraux said in the 1960s that the Champs-Elysées had “an American basement.” The avenue now bristles with globalized brands, from Apple and Disney to Foot Locker, Levi’s, Nike, and Starbucks. (Abercrombie & Fitch, Banana Republic, and Gap have closed, but Tommy Hilfiger and Tie Rack are hanging on, and were recently joined by jeweler Tiffany & Co.) Along with McDonald’s, Five Guys, and the official store of the Netflix series Stranger Things, these establishments form what The New York Times has dubbed “a mall of America” and a street that has “largely lost its distinctive character and become far less French.” Faced with the avenue’s downgrading from a formerly chic, expensive, historic thoroughfare to a tourist-trap theme park, the city has decided to act. This was the start of the “Re-enchanting the Champs-Elysées” project, first unveiled in April 2019.

A 30-Million-Euro Facelift

“The avenue seems to have gained a few wrinkles,” reported the Comité Champs-Elysées, a powerful local trade group founded during World War I. “It has been criticized for its gray, unappealing appearance and large, impersonal brands […]. After being enhanced and redeveloped, the Champs-Elysées will once again become the historic promenade it was when it was first built.” To achieve this objective, the Comité has set out to make shop windows shine and develop a series of events. Examples have included the wrapping of the Arc de Triomphe in 2021 (a posthumous work by the late artistic duo Christo and Jeanne-Claude), the arrival of 2,000 sheep as part of the 2022 International Agricultural Show, a giant dictation competition in 2023 with 1,779 desks set up on the cobblestones, and a concert by the Emory & Henry College marching band, which was flown in from Virginia for the occasion.

A parade of 2,000 sheep down the Champs-Elysées concluded the Paris International Agricultural Show, March 6, 2022. © Quentin de Groeve/Hans Lucas
In 2021, Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s project came to fruition and the Arc de Triomphe was wrapped using 270,000 square feet of fabric. © Christo and Jeanne-Claude Foundation

To restore the sidewalks to their former glory, the Comité Champs-Elysées has also announced the installation of new terraces that are “more harmonious and functional, more welcoming and more Parisian.” Say goodbye to the current mishmash of styles and colors; say hello to “clay-gray” arbors, “reseda-green” awnings, and red or taupe furniture, complete with a collection of rattan or metal chairs designed especially for the revamp. Together with the planting of 400 trees, these new features promises to restore the avenue’s “village feel,” according to Comité president Marc-Antoine Jamet. These strategies should also attract new customers to the many luxury boutiques along the Champs-Elysées, including Cartier, Tissot, and Galeries Lafayette, which took over four floors at number 60 in 2019, along with the recently reopened Lido cabaret.

But how can this paradise for the super-rich – mostly tourists from America, Saudi Arabia, and China – avoid excluding less fortunate Parisians, suburbanites, and visitors? The closure of a pharmacy and a post office on the avenue worried local residents as far back as 20 years ago. “How can we save the Champs?” asked the press at the time. The pandemic and skyrocketing commercial rents have accelerated a trend also seen on Madison Avenue in Manhattan, driving out the smaller shops that used to bring the street to life. Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo is betting on a two-tiered project of more trees and fewer cars. To begin with, she intends to turn the Champs-Elysées into a “long, green promenade” and an “extraordinary garden” by pedestrianizing Place de la Concorde and extending the green corridor starting at the Tuileries Garden for more than a mile.

A Slimmer, Greener Champs-Elysées

Some 86,000 square feet of asphalt also encompassing the Avenue du Général-Eisenhower will be handed back over to pedestrians and transformed into walkways and gardens. Meanwhile, the number of traffic lanes on the Champs-Elysées will be reduced from eight to four. Lastly, on the upper part of the avenue, Place de l’Étoile, which is home to the Arc de Triomphe and welcomes 1.5 million visitors every year, will be “visually transformed” and expanded for the benefit of pedestrians. While it has already drawn the wrath of motorists, this ambitious green plan will have the advantage of showcasing the Champs-Elysées Gardens and local landmarks. These include the enormous Bouquet of Tulips sculpture donated to the city by American artist Jeff Koons in the aftermath of the terror attacks of November 13, 2015, and the new fountains on the traffic circle halfway down the avenue, redesigned by brothers Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec after standing empty for more than 20 years.

The number of traffic lanes on the Champs-Elysées will be reduced from eight to four, and the reclaimed space will be turned into an urban park. © PCA-STREAM

While the Comité Champs-Elysées is all for making more room for trees and pedestrians, car travel and access to the parking garages used by wealthy visitors should not be sacrificed. “As a historical square built in stone like a Spanish plaza, Place de la Concorde does not need trees and should remain as it is,” adds Marc-Antoine Jamet. The Comité’s president, who is also general secretary of the LVMH group, is keen to ensure that Dior, Louis Vuitton, Guerlain, and Sephora all continue to attract visitors. Playing a major economic card, he recently had the avenue – along with its brands and real estate – valued. “If this were a game of Monopoly, it would be worth 18 billion euros!” The forthcoming inauguration of a second 237,000-square-foot Louis Vuitton store at number 103, a former hotel built in 1898, will further increase this number.

By decree on August 24, 1667, Louis XIV granted courtiers the privilege of crossing his gardens by carriage on their way to the royal estate of Saint-Germain-en-Laye and the Château de Versailles, then under construction to the southwest of Paris. This route came to be known as the Champs-Elysées (the “Elysium Fields”) in reference to the eternal resting place of the heroes of Greek mythology. Three and a half centuries later, strollers and visitors will soon be able to choose between wandering through a vast urban garden and window-shopping on “LVMH Avenue.”


Article published in the February 2024 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.