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Last Updated: Thursday, 15 January, 2004, 22:56 GMT
Starbucks invades Parisian cafe culture

By Caroline Wyatt
BBC correspondent in Paris

A form of alien civilisation has finally landed in Paris - unfamiliar green and black signs have appeared on the Avenue de L'Opera.

Starbucks coffee
French customers may know what to expect from US TV shows

It is the first Starbucks cafe to boldly go where no Starbucks has gone before, onto potentially hostile French territory.

Its advertising posters on the Champs Elysee announce "Starbucks - a passion pour le cafe".

But is the company aware of the risk it is taking by challenging the very birthplace of cafe society?

Bill O'Shea of Starbucks says it is all too aware of the cultural sensitivities here.

"I think every time we come into a new market we do it with a great sense of respect, a great deal of interest in how that cafe society has developed over time," he says.

"We recognise there is a huge history here of cafe society and we have every confidence we can enjoy, augment and join in that passion."

Exotic rarity

And he may be right. Despite some sniffiness in the French press, some younger French are expressing their excitement that they will finally be able to visit the kind of cafe they love to watch on the US TV series Friends.

It's nice sometimes to sit down have a doughnut and skinny latte - I kind of like the idea
cafe customer
In fact, for some, it is an exotic rarity, far more exciting than the average French cafe.

Melissa, aged 18, says she can hardly wait: "I love Starbucks caramel coffee - it's very good and I like the concept that they're opening in Paris. I think Starbucks will be OK for French people."

An American tourist outside is equally excited when she spots the sign - this could be just the thing to help her get over the occasional twinge of homesickness.

She dismisses the idea that it is yet another sign of cultural imperialism by the US, as some newspapers here have alleged.

"I love the French cafes, but Starbucks is so popular in the States and it's become part of American culture and now it's come to France, and that's OK," she said.

"It's all over the world already, anyway."

Cafe in Paris
Small family-run cafes, bastions of Paris culture, may feel the pressure

But that is the problem for many French, who do not want France to be just like the rest of the world: with standardised disposal cups of coffee - identical in 7,000 branches around the world - even if they are termed handcrafted beverages.

At the traditional Friedland cafe, customers worry that the big US coffee house chains could drive out small, family-owned cafes, even here in France.

"I don't know if I like the fact that big chains come to Paris - because we have the tradition in Paris of small cafes and they're independent," 25-year-old Marie tells me.

"I lived in the US and I liked it there but here it's different, so I'm not sure."

New tradition

Others here, though, think they could come round to the idea of Starbucks, though for them it would never replace the corner cafe or the typical Parisian petit noir coffee - a shot of espresso that goes perfectly with a Gauloise cigarette first thing in the morning.

"Usually, we like the petit noir or noisette, and not long coffees like they serve in Starbucks," says Pierre, another regular customer.

"I don't know if in these Latin countries we have the tradition of long coffees, we like espresso but it's nice sometimes to sit down have a doughnut and skinny latte - I kind of like the idea."

Just as long as the owner of the cafe does not hear him. That sort of sentiment could still earn him a rendezvous at the guillotine for treason in France.

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