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One of Paris's best-loved department stores, La Samaritaine, closed down yesterday -- possibly for several years -- after inspectors found that the century-old building by the River Seine falls catastrophically short of fire safety norms.

Hundreds of employees staged a sit-in on the last day of trading, amid fears that the store's owner -- the luxury goods house LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton -- will decide not to reopen it after the urgent renovation works are completed.

A listed art deco structure beside the Pont Neuf bridge in the city centre, La Samaritaine was found in a recent police report to contain antiquated electrical circuits, malfunctioning smoke extraction systems and flammable wooden flooring.

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The building is to be closed for an initial period of two weeks for a full technical inspection to be carried out, with the subsequent refitting likely to take several years.

"The situation is so alarming that I cannot permit the store to be opened to the public any longer . . . There is no question of taking the slightest risk," La Samaritaine's president Philippe de Beauvoir said.

"I do not wish to be president of the Mont Blanc tunnel," he said in reference to the fire disaster under the Alps that killed 39 people in 1999.

The store's 750 employees have been told they will be retained on full pay, though only some 300 -- mainly security and administrative staff -- will be expected to turn up for work.

Originally opened in 1869, La Samaritaine -- or "La Samar" -- was long known as a place where Parisians could find anything and everything. However, the last 15 years have seen a drastic decline in sales.

LVMH, which took control in 2001, was planning to bring the store up-market, as a showcase for its numerous designer labels such as Christian Dior and Lacroix. The company denied union allegations that it plans to close the store for good and convert the building into office space.

Many staff were tearful over the imminent closing. "It is as if they were pulling down the Eiffel Tower," said Nadine, 38.

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La Samaritaine was founded by a commercial traveller called Ernest Cognacq. He named his store after a hydraulic pump by the Pont Neuf which bore the biblical image of the "Samaritan woman" giving Jesus a glass of water. AFP

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