The narrow streets of the French capital's fastest-growing and most controversial garment district buzz with activity. Truck drivers lean on their horns as they vie for space in front of wholesale stores. Young Chinese men, most of them in jackets too thin for the cold weather, wheel piles of overstuffed cartons into the shops. Buyers from Spain, Russia and the Paris suburbs wander from shop to shop, studying this week's fashion offering of flouncy skirts and wide-belted jackets, hauling their plaid nylon shopping bags behind them on the sidewalks. Neighbourhood mothers ploughing through with baby strollers mutter a few curses, but it's nothing as pungent as the abuse shouted from the stalled cars blocked by double-parked trucks disgorging ever more boxes of clothes. Business is booming in the Sedaine-Popincourt neighbourhood in eastern Paris. But the concentration of Chinese-run wholesale clothing stores in this densely populated pocket has not only upset the people living above the shops, it has also prompted a fierce backlash from City Hall. 'The residents, and for good cause, feel that they have been dispossessed of their neighbourhood,' says Georges Sarre, a veteran Socialist politician who is the mayor of the 11th arrondissement, or district. 'In the span of a few years, this mono-activity of wholesalers has totally disrupted local life.' The city must take the neighbourhood back from the Chinese, he says, lease by lease, property by property and, if necessary, by decree. At the urging of Mr Sarre, the city has been buying up commercial leases in an attempt to stop the expansion of the garment district. An array of new laws, some already passed and others under consideration, would give the city broader powers to intervene directly in the real estate market and pre-emptively take over property that might be used by wholesalers. That muscular approach has caused some rumbles. Other local businesspeople see the burgeoning garment district as a plus, providing jobs and generating tax revenues. 'When I see people working and working hard, all I can say is 'great',' says David Saada, the owner of a pharmacy on the wholesaler-dominated Rue Popincourt. 'The mayor is a hypocrite. The Chinese have brought prosperity.' But in general, the Chinese wholesalers have found themselves on the defensive and ill prepared to plead their cause with the politicians and city planners who want to drive them out. Most are recent immigrants from Wenzhou in Zhejiang province , drawn into the international garment trade by the lifting of textile quotas on China two years ago. Few speak any more than rudimentary French, and their merchants' association, focused mainly on keeping its members abreast of import-export rules, has failed to lobby on their behalf. Association president Maxime Zhang refuses to discuss the growing tensions. 'We have no problems with the residents of the 11th arrondissement,' says Mr Zhang, a seller of wholesale women's clothes from his store, Maxime Z. 'But I don't want to talk about it.' Others say they simply can't understand the hostile reactions. 'We are not breaking any laws or rules,' says Yu Xiaochuan, who designs women's clothes in his brother-in-law's shop on Rue Sedaine. 'We come here in the morning, we work hard and then we go home. I don't see why the neighbours say that is a problem.' The Sedaine-Popincourt area is home to about 30,000 people. Tucked behind the Place Leon Blum, named for the 1930s Marxist prime minister of France, the tangle of one-way streets and alleyways has been a garment district for years. But the Chinese change has been dramatic and swift. Along some streets, eight out of every 10 street-level shops are wholesale garment merchants. As a reminder to anyone who might venture in to look at the clothes, the mannequins have their backs facing the street and in each window a handwritten sign warns, 'No retail. Please don't ask.' Until the 1990s, when the Wenzhou immigrants refocused it on cheap ready-to-wear women's clothes, the handful of wholesale outlets in the neighbourhood specialised in household linen manufactured in backroom workshops. The traditional centre for women's fashion knock-offs was in the Sentier neighbourhood, in the 2nd arrondissement to the northwest. But the wholesale clothing business, a mainstay of the Paris economy throughout its history, changed dramatically in the past few years as China became a major player in the world textile trade. The shops in Sedaine-Popincourt still provide the basic quick turnaround that small clothing shops and individual merchants require. If a shop owner sees a need for extras of a particular garment in red, for example, the wholesalers can produce them overnight. Many have workshops on their premises or in the tiny courtyards nearby. The trend, however, is to manufacture in China and then import clothes into France and other European countries. Wholesalers are now sending their designs straight to Chinese factories or have set up sewing operations in the government-sponsored industrial zone for clothing in the Paris suburb of Aubervilliers. Still, everyone wants a central location to sell to the traders and retailers who are accustomed to wholesalers all being within walking distance of one another. The French government, on the national and Paris city levels, has been trying to counter the growth of single-activity zones in otherwise residential neighbourhoods. The Sedaine-Popincourt garment district is just the latest target. A few years ago, it managed to drive out most of the sex shops concentrated in a small pocket of the St Denis neighbourhood. It has been trying to buy up leases to slow the spread of computer retail stores in the Montgallet neighbourhood. One tool is the quasi-government agency, called Semaest, which is charged with promoting economic diversity by taking direct control of real estate. Financed with a Euro54 million (HK$624.13 million) grant from the city, it has managed to buy up 125 properties and commercial leases in the Sedaine-Popincourt district in the last five years. Its stated goal is to rent out the space to a diversity of retail businesses to serve local residents. Until now, it could only bid on properties and rental contracts like any other developer. But a 2006 national law would give the city a significant new weapon, allowing it to step in and pre-emptively buy up commercial leases, with or without the seller's consent, in order to change the nature of the business activity there. Mr Sarre, the 11th arrondissement mayor, would like to see even more draconian measures that would empower the city to expropriate property, and not just leases, to prevent an owner from selling or renting to a wholesale outlet. He says he is not opposed to the Chinese immigrants themselves, but only to the entrepreneurs who have set up the wholesale garment district in his constituency. 'If the Chinese want to open restaurants, butcher's shops, grocery stores, shoe repair shops or whatever, I will applaud it,' says Mr Sarre. 'But an identical mass of wholesalers? No.' The idea of government intervention in the property market is not an alien one in France, with its long history of centralised authority and a strong state. 'We can't leave it to market forces,' says Martine Cohen, the president of Act in Solidarity for the Popincourt District, the local residents' association. 'The ideal would be for all the 500 or so wholesalers to leave, to go wherever it is they go, and then for other kinds of shops come in.' But the prospect of the government creating a tailor-made neighbourhood strikes others as overkill. 'It's true that retail businesses have gone while the Chinese have come in,' says Mr Saada, the pharmacist. 'But the people complaining about the bakery disappearing are those who never used to shop at that bakery. Yes, the butcher has closed down and left. He said it was because his customers were buying meat at the supermarket.' 'The Paris I know has always had traffic jams, crowds of people on the footpaths, horns honking. If you don't want to live with that, don't live in the city.'