PARIS - THE Champs Elysees, held up by France as the most beautiful avenue in the world, has become blighted by prostitution, racketeering and violence, according to a top police officer.
The broad boulevard, which connects Napoleon's grandiose Arc de Triomphe with the regal Tuileries Gardens, was always a byword for elegance and a focal point for national celebrations.
But in recent years, the avenue has increasingly drawn low-life criminals, its famed cinemas giving way to night clubs, and its tourists frightened away by gangs of drunken youths.
'It's no longer the nice child it used to be,' Mr Guy Parent, head of Paris' anti-prostitution unit, told Le Parisien daily on Saturday.
'The Champ Elysees' clientele is often unstable... there are regularly fights between guards and clubbers. The tension is palpable,' he added.
Le Parisien also quoted the mayor in charge of the Champs Elysees district, Mr Francois Lebel, as saying the famous road was becoming 'a meeting place for thugs and suburbdwellers'.
Locals have complained that large groups of youths from poor neighbourhoods bordering Paris descend on the avenue in the evening, drawn to its vibrant nightlife.
They also estimated that an army of 200 to 300 prostitutes pace the pavements seeking wealthy clients.
Mr Parent said he thought that number might be exaggerated, but confirmed the 2km long street attracted many foreign call girls, especially from north Africa.
'They are very chic to seduce very smart clients. They hunt down Saudis and Kuwaitis... (and) offer their favours for perhaps up to 5,000 euros (S$10,600) an evening.'
Created in 1640 by landscape gardener Andre Le Notre, the avenue was widely seen as down-at-heel in the 1980s before former president Jacques Chirac ordered an overhaul when he was mayor of Paris.
Now, it is the third most expensive street in the world for retailers - behind Fifth Avenue in New York, Causeway Bay in Hong Kong and ahead of New Bond Street in London.
Local businesses complain that rents, which reportedly top US$1 million (S$1.44 million) a year for 100sq m, are chasing away long-standing residents and drawing in big chain stores, bars and nightclubs.
Retail chains have swarmed to the sunny, north side of the avenue, which attracts more pedestrians, while luxury goods groups like Louis Vuitton have shifted to the south side.