Byline: Natasha Fraser

PARIS — During the Eighties real estate boom, financiers Eric Naon and Marc Pauzie were part of Paris’s freewheeling golden youth, leading a life of fast cars, romantic weekends in exotic places and hand-tailored suits. Then the market crashed.
“We worked in the same office,” remembers Naon, “and we would spend our hours telephoning each other, not clients. Business was that bad.”
Those idle days of telephone chitchat gave rise to a brainstorm: They would spearhead a real estate project in the spirit of Francois Mitterand’s Grands Travaux (among them, the construction of I.M. Pei’s pyramid at the Louvre, the Arch of the Defense and the Bastille Opera), but one that relied on private investment.
“In Anglo-Saxon countries,” explains Pauzie, “private companies supporting public projects is standard practice. But in France, it’s totally unheard of.”
“Mitterrand was the last of the big spenders,” adds Naon. “He had a Louis XIV attitude — one which [President] Chirac can’t possibly afford today.”
Naon and Pauzie zeroed in on the Place de la Concorde, a symbol of Paris for Frenchmen and tourists alike, but one in dire need of repair. Due to corrosive air pollution, the plaza’s two fountains, Les Mers and Les Fleuves, are crumbling, and heavy traffic around the plaza makes the pedestrian’s cross a real hazard.
The golden key for the young entrepreneurs was that the Place de la Concorde lies between two shopping meccas — Faubourg Saint Honore and Avenue Montaigne. Naon and Pauzie hope to make the plaza a third.
They proposed a plan to restore the fountains to their 19th-century splendor and build an 8,000-square-foot subterranean plaza of retail and gallery space, along with an 800-foot underground pedestrian passageway beneath the Place de la Concorde. The project has an estimated price tag of $60 million.
With architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte, I.M. Pei’s former assistant, now on board, Naon and Pauzie plan to spend this year finding the right deep pockets to keep Actions Mecenat — as the project organization is called — moving ahead. When pressed, they admit that the Getty Museum in California and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York have expressed interest; that they’ve met with a representative from Bernard Arnault’s LVMH; that Pierre Berge of Yves Saint Laurent knows about them, and that auction houses Sotheby’s and Christie’s “might” be interested.
But it’s not an area they feel easy about discussing.
Naon recalls that when they first told their neighbors about the proposed project, Actions Mecenat was laughed at.
“I think they were waiting for us to fall flat on our faces,” Naon says, “but now three years have passed, and they’re just as enthusiastic as we are.”
Once they secure financing, the project should take 18 months to build — about as long as it took to build the Eiffel Tower, Pauzie notes. And with an eye on the year 2000, the partners are already inviting people for the inauguration party.
“Join us on December 31, 1999, at either fountain,” says Pauzie. “We promise to provide the champagne.”