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LES ECHOS

An After-Hours Visit To The Champs-Elysées Seedy Sister Street

Rue de Ponthieu is one of the French capital's choice spots for late-night partying. But it also has a reputation for dodgy encounters and pre-dawn street fights.

Sunrise over rue de Ponthieu
Sunrise over rue de Ponthieu
Roland Gauron

PARIS — It's 5:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning: closing time for the nightclubs on Rue de Ponthieu in Paris' 8th arrondissement. Club goers spill onto the street. Watching them are a dozen or so police officers standing beside the nearby Galerie 66 shopping center. This is the street's "flashpoint," and the officers aren't budging. There was a shootout here last month, at about 7 a.m. — also on Sunday morning. Three men were shot and injured, two of them already known to police in relation with previous criminal affairs. The other was the driver of a private taxi.

About 15 or so bars and clubs are concentrated along a stretch of about 600 meters on this side street, just behind the famous Champs-Élysées, one of the world's most beautiful avenues. Cars move slowly in the early hours of the morning, occasionally honking their horns. Against the background noise and bustle, late-night partiers can still be heard laughing or shouting. An exasperated resident shouts out "shut the f**k up!" from somewhere. The effects of alcohol are evident on some. A girl in high heels and falling neckline wishes the policemen an enticing "good evening" before tripping a few steps later.

Rue de Ponthieu has a reputation for nocturnal excesses. The latest incident was the arrest on Jan. 19 — less than two weeks after the shooting — of the authors of a car theft just outside the capital. Police stopped the suspects here in the early hours of the morning, all drunk. A few months earlier, in September, there was a big fight outside Chez Régine at number 49. In May, at the intersection with Rue de Berri, French soccer star Serge Aurier got into a fist fight with a policeman. The night before, a shootout injured two, including a police officer, near L"Éden, another club here.

Actor Samy Naceri has also fallen into the grip of the street's dodgy events, leaving behind several of his teeth here after a fight in 2013. Three years before, the Zaman Café, inside Galerie 66, was at the heart of the Zahia affair, a prostitution scandal involving soccer players. The mayor of the 8th arrondissement at the time, François Lebel, complained that the neighborhood was becoming like Pigalle, a seedy part of northern Paris.

Local residents benefit very little from the nightlife and are sometimes reluctant to step outside the house. "I have a daughter at home," says one lady and lifelong resident. "She doesn't fell unsafe. But after a certain hour, I ask her to take a taxi or at least have someone bring her home." The woman also says that just this morning, at about 10:30 a.m., she had to call the police because people were fighting in front of an after-hours club.

End of an era

At dawn, building caretakers are the first to feel the night's roughness. "People shout at you when you take out the trash. Everyone is pissing and puking everywhere. No manners whatsoever," says a female concierge. "It's become more dangerous than Barbès," she adds, referring to another ill-famed part of northern Paris.

The latest crime figures back her claim. In 2015, the 8th arrondissement had the second highest rate of non-criminal violence per inhabitant in Paris. Many place names, like Rue de Ponthieu, keep coming up in reports of night-time brawls. "It often starts in some nocturnal establishment before ending in the street," says Jean-Luc Besson, the mission head at the National Observatory of Crime and Penal Responses, or ONDRP. Besson says there were at least 86 muggings that year within a 200-meter radius of the Champs-Élysées. Nine out of 10 happened between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m.

Rue de Ponthieu — Source: Google Street View

Things weren't always this way. The iconic French singer Régine set up shop here in 1970, in what is remembered as the area's "golden era." From her cabaret, she presided over Paris night life for years. "There were no problems in those days," a woman living here recalls wistfully. Even as recently as 2000, celebrities were crowding into the Mathis, a capital's most sought-after private bar. Regulars included Françoise Sagan, the writer, and actress Valérie Lemercier.

Addy Bakhtiar, Romain Dian and Laurent de Gourcuff — the so-called "kings of Paris night life" — also invested here. But today, only Gourcuff, who heads the Noctis group of firms, still owns clubs here: L"Éden, Chez Papillon, Le Pavillon Franklin Roosevelt and Le Carré Ponthieu. Bakhtiar discarded Chez Régine, selling his shares in 2014, while Dian, his former business partner, got out of the nightclub business altogether.

Hip hop evenings

It was about 10 years ago, says journalist Florian Anselme, that the street really "turned to the dark side." Anselme wrote a detailed study in 2013 about "the hidden life of the Champs-Élysées' (La vie cachée des Champs-Élysées). There are "more and more nightclubs," he says, "targeting customers from the suburbs, who don't necessarily fit the vibe of this neighborhood," he says.

The stars and the area's wealthy youth now go out elsewhere. A sign of the times: Chez Régine was renamed Club 49 in January. The cabaret environment has now given way to a "New-York-type of setting with a sleek decor" and hip-hop evenings, says Anselme. "At the end of the day, all the clubs will look like each other," he adds. "They want to give the impression that they're absolutely the place to be at night, but really behind the shop front, there's other types of business going on."

A member of the national police union, Philippe Lavenue, says the concentration of clubs on the street brings in a "mixed population that includes some notorious thugs." More troubling still, he points out, is evidence that some establishments allow clients to carry weapons. The only way to tackle the situation, according to Lavenue, is with more police and cameras. "You have to get the club owners to accept responsibility," he says.

Two years ago, Jeanne d'Hauteserre, the conservative current mayor of the arrondissement, asked with police approval that nightclubs equip their entrances with metal detectors. So far nothing has come of the effort. Muratt Atik, who heads a strip club called Le Pink Paradise, says the detector idea was actually his. He also says that nothing will be done until the mayor takes mandatory measures. "If I'm the only one putting up a detector, people will think there are gangsters inside. I'll lose my customers," Atik says.

Another project making progress is to make the street partly pedestrian. Cars allow "a lot of dealing" inside, and restricting their numbers "would help avoid all that," says Florian Anselme. It is a recurring topic of discussions at the neighborhood council, which seems to talk of nothing but the Rue de Ponthieu.

One member says they have already tried pedestrianization and "things improved a little." But the mayoress is more reserved, saying "it's not easy, when you have restaurants and hotels that need deliveries."

Crime expert Jean-Luc Besson, for his part, says that "criminal incidents are a constant in Paris' and will remain so unless policies are enacted "to tackle it at the roots." The police department is aware of this and is expected to announced a series of new measures in late February. The Rue de Ponthieu, in the meantime, seems to be at a dead end.

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