“An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics” –- PlutarchParis, the Champs-Élysées, on a chilly afternoon, about a month ago. We were walking down the broad avenue when we suddenly found ourself drifting to avenue Montaigne.
We had walked all the way from the upper part which extend to the Arc de Triomphe. We had passed a parade of chain-stores (mostly fast foods and sport shops), we had noticed the Iran Air office and almost withdrew money at the National Bank of Pakistan, we had had a taste of luxury looking at the Mont Blanc and Louis Vuitton stores. No small businesses here: you have to able to afford up to €10,000/sq meter a month.
Further down, the shops had disappeared and the street had turned into a tree-lined boulevard, flanked by gardens, theaters and museums. Still as broad but not as busy. We headed towards Avenue Montaigne, which branches off the Champs-Elysées at the Rond-Point and runs to the banks of the Seine.
The further we walked from the Arc de Triomphe, the fewer pedestrian there were — a nice change from the upper Champs-Élysées where tourists were gathering in front of each flagship stores, barely noticing they had the same at home. Dear globalization — you won.
Avenue Montaigne seemed to be designed for window-shopping with its wide sidewalks. Although there were very little traffic, not a single parking spot was left and most cars were nicely parked parallel to the sidewalks. Most of them from Monaco and Luxembourg, according to the license plates. We walked a few meters, past the Canadian embassy, to the iconic Plaza-Athénée.
The hotel was busy. Black tinted-windows Mercedes were stopping directly on the sidewalk. There seemed to be a constant stream of thin blond women with oversize glasses, presumably to 1) look mysterious 2) hide wrinkles or latest Botox injection. Same clothes as Britney Spears but a good thirty years older. Women who didn’t look like disturbed pop stars had the Parisian chic uniform: trench coat, skinny pants tucked into shiny high-heels boots, long hair, shades (wrinkles as well) and a tote bag. The clothes said “I’m rich” while the bag presumably meant “I often go to the food market and I’m accessible“. It could have contradicted checking in a €1,000/ night hotel. Nevermind. Maybe they do shop at the market to be able to afford the extravaganza. Men didn’t have anything special but for two bulges in their tuxedo pockets: cell phone and oversize wallet.
And more rich people were getting off of rich cars, abandoning them to the valet on the sidewalk, making their way through revolving door. Not a word was spoken, these people were natural. I guess unlike us when we look for an hotel, they didn’t need to ask if there were some rooms available or if hot water for the shower was included in the price.
We kept on walking and passed numerous high fashion stores: Chanel, Valentino, Christian Dior, Max Mara, Louis Vuitton, Prada, Céline, Hermès, you name it. Highly respected designers seemed to favor the street… but they also favored discretion and elitism. Each shop’s windows was clearly visible and well-set with a few items on display, but the main entrance, a tinted sliding door, was blocked by two bouncers. Two huge Cerberus, one on each side of the door, talkie-walkie in hands even though they were only a few meters apart. No every one can come in, not every one can afford it. Got it.
I still managed to get close to one of the window, Dior I believe. Prices were astronomical. I’m talking about €2,000 for a handbag, €3,000 for shoes (a pair, though), €5,000 for pants etc. etc. I was turning my back to walk away when a couple walked by my side, toward the entrance of the shop. The two bouncers nodded and the door slided open. I caught a glimpse of the inside of the shop. It was full of people inside. Sure enough, a few seconds later, two women exited Dior, and walked by me, holding a bag full of their purchases.
I suddenly felt very out-of-place. Who were these people? Why them? Were they the elected ones? On which planet were they living? It wasn’t fashion week and we were in the middle of the week on a cold April day. It wasn’t for a special event. This was a normal day in Paris’ posh district. I kept thinking that the average monthly salary in France is €1,800. Considering the very high cost of housing, the ever increasing cost of food and utilities and an unemployment rate French aren’t exactly proud of, I was literally in an other world. A world that I knew existed but, naive as I am, had never really seen that close.