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The Champs Elysees is the grandest avenue in Paris, but it's increasingly been taken over by global chain stores - Banana Republic, Abercrombie, H&M, the Disney Store. Another sign of change on the Champs Elysees, Virgin Records, which has been there for 25 years, may soon be closing. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley took a stroll down the famous avenue in the heart of Paris.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Music pours out of the Virgin Megastore onto the sidewalks of the Champs Elysees for now. The company filed for bankruptcy in December, unable to make it in the fast-changing digital world. The city is worried about what's happening to one of Paris's most iconic strolling avenues, says deputy mayor, Lyne Cohen Solal.

LYNE COHEN SOLAL: We just fight to keep sort of the diversity in the Champs Elysees with the cinemas and the restaurants, with cafe and shops, of course. We are very preoccupied because we don't think that the laws of natural market, you know, the free market, make a good Champs Elysees.

BEARDSLEY: Cohen Solal says the Champs Elysees is being transformed by skyrocketing rents. A Qatari firm bought the Virgin building and is doubling the rent. She says foreign investors now see the Champs Elysees as a place for real estate speculation. What a horrible fate for an avenue that is not only a symbol of Paris, but a reflection of the French nation itself.

Connecting Napoleon's Arc de Triomphe with the revolutionary Place de la Concorde, the mile-long Champs Elysees was sculpted in the late 1600s by Louis the 14th.

Every summer, cyclists sprint up the Champs Elysees in a mad finish to the iconic Tour de France bike race. And on Bastille Day, French soldiers proudly parade down it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARCHING BAND)

BEARDSLEY: The Germans marched down the Champs Elysees when they occupied Paris in 1940, and so did the Allies when they liberated the city in 1944.

Despite gloom over the avenue's future, the Champs Elysees is alive and well, says historian and author David Downie. We meet at restaurant Le Fouquet's, a staple of the Champs Elysees since 1899, then down he takes me for a stroll down the avenue.

DAVID DOWNIE: When people say that the Champs Elysees has gone downhill, and it has in some ways because of all of these multinational corporate chain stores. In other ways, I mean, it looks better than it has in a long time. Look at all the buildings that have been restored.

BEARDSLEY: Downie says trees and lampposts were also planted and the sidewalks widened during the early 1990s restoration that transformed the avenue. The Champs, as it is fondly called here, has had two big heydays, says Downie - from 1850 until World War I, the Belle Epoque, and from the end of World War II to the 1960s, when everyone wanted to be seen here.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AUX, CHAMPS ELYSEES")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) Aux Champs Elysees. Aux Champs Elysees...

BEARDSLEY: Back then singers crooned about it and Parisians and tourists alike flocked to the mythic avenue.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AUX, CHAMPS ELYSEES")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) Tu m'as dit: J'ai rendez-vous dans un sous-sol avec des fous...

BEARDSLEY: That atmosphere of romance and excitement was vividly captured in Jean Luc Goddard's classic film "Breathless." Jean Paul Belmondo plays a gangster who is shot on the avenue, and Jean Seberg, an American newspaper girl who hawks her papers there.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BREATHLESS")

JEAN SEBERG: (as Patricia) New York Herald Tribune.

DOWNIE: The Champs Elysees has always had this intoxicating mix of glamour and sleaze; big money, violence, deal-making, and then the nightclubs and the people coming from all over the world, often with a lot of money.

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLES)

BEARDSLEY: Today, many small shops and cinemas have disappeared from the Champs Elysees, but the Lido cabaret and a handful of luxury boutiques still hold on - they just rub shoulders now with places like The Gap and McDonalds.

Many Parisians say the Champs has lost its uniqueness and become like anywhere else. But I run into Parisian Jeanine Emmanuel, strolling the wide sidewalks with a smile on her face. Emmanuel, who is 60, says she used to come here as a student.

JEANINE EMMANUEL: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: I knew the Champs Elysees when it had many cinemas and today, it's clothing stores, she says. It's different from when I was a student, but let's not exaggerate, the Champs Elysees still has its charm. Oh yes, it definitely has its charm.

EMMANUEL: (Foreign language spoken)

(LAUGHTER)

EMMANUEL: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AUX, CHAMPS ELYSEES")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) t'apprivoiser. Aux Champs Elysees. Aux Champs Elysees...

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