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50 years since iconic Paris market uprooted

Les Halles in central Paris on February 25, 1969, days before the centuries-old market was shut and relocated to the suburbs
Les Halles in central Paris on February 25, 1969, days before the centuries-old market was shut and relocated to the suburbs AFP/File
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Paris (AFP)

In the early hours of Friday February 28, 1969, Parisians headed to the centuries-oldfresh food market in the heart of the city to bid a nostalgic goodbye.

By Monday the market would be uprooted from its prized location in central Paris and reestablished in the suburbs at Rungis, today the world's largest fresh produce market.

Here is an account of the transfer 50 years ago of the ancient Les Halles market, replaced by a modern shopping mall of the same name.

- Farewell with flowers -

Many of the Parisians who flocked to the site in the early hours of its last day came with their cameras to capture "for the last time the strange atmosphere" of the much-loved old market being dismantled, AFP reported.

Armsful of flowers were tossed into the complex's central square and there was a "bed of azaleas, roses and tulips" outside the adjacent Saint-Eustache church, lit up for the occasion.

"A last tribute from the florists" who were the first to move to Rungis, the report said.

Near the church, people danced around pyramids of vegetable crates as a band played popular songs. But they were not able to dispell "the heavy atmosphere of melancholy".

A market had existed here since the 12th century when the first two halls were built, the start of what eventually became Les Halles with 12 pavilions over a dozen hectares (about 30 acres).

It supplied some eight million people with their fresh produce, according to the Rungis website.

But it had become too big for the narrow roads of the old city centre. For reasons of hygiene, traffic and access, authorities decided in 1959 to move it out.

- 'Move of the century' -

The relocation was a quasi-military operation and entrusted to a reserve officer specialised in army logistics.

Carried out overnight March 2-3, the "move of the century" involved nearly 30,000 people, the Rungis site says.

Around 5,000 tonnes of merchandise from 1,000 businesses and masses of material were bundled into 1,500 lorries for the seven-kilometre (four-mile) trip south of Paris, it says.

Dairy and eggs vendor Didier Maitre was disappointed with the modern new premises.

"With its goods lift and its big aisles, Rungis looked more like a little town than a big market like the old Les Halles," he told AFP in 1969.

The "belly of Paris", the old market had been busy and vibrant, even if a little seedy because of the prostitutes on nearby rue Saint-Denis, he remembered.

- World's biggest -

On Monday March 3 Rungis opened its brand-new doors, offering fresh fruit, vegetables, seafood, dairy and flowers. It also took in the city's main meat market in 1973.

It is today the world's biggest fresh produce market, covering 234 hectares (580 acres) with an annual turnover of nine billion euros ($10.2 billion), according to its official website.

Rungis employs around 12,000 wholesalers, producers, porters, restaurateurs and other workers, with the seafood section opening the earliest at 2:00 am.

The move also introduced new innovations.

"People don't carry meat anymore," said Guy Eschalier, 96, who had worked at the old La Villette meat market.

"Everything is automated, the cold chain is enforced, the traceability, to give the customer all the guarantees."

- From market to mall -

With the Paris site of Les Halles abandoned, petitions circulated to preserve its landmark cast-iron, steel, brick and glass pavilions.

In 1970 they hosted cultural activities, keeping alive the hope of an architectural rescue, but in 1971 demolition began and the great market turned into a giant excavation.

A major railway hub opened on the site in 1977 and, two years later, a shopping mall known as the Forum des Halles, its latest transformation unveiled just last year.

One original pavilion survived, reassembled piece-by-piece in the Paris suburb of Nogent-sur-Marne where it houses a concert hall.

The framework of another pavilion is also on display, some 10,000 kilometres away, in a park in Yokohama, Japan.

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