The Myth of French Golden Arches Revulsion
The French hate McDonald's. The notion of "fast food" clashes with their belief that meals should be long and leisurely; that they should be cooked carefully, with prized ingredients. It couldn't be further from the notion of terroir. But mostly they hate it because it is as shamefully hip-packed and loud-talking as those god-awful Americans, and Americans don't know how to eat.
Have you heard this before? Did you believe it? Well, then you might want to sit down for this one: In the first half of this year, combined sales at the chain's 6,400 European restaurants rose 15 percent, to $4.1 billion, compared with a 6 percent increase in the United States, where McDonald's has 13,800 restaurants and where sales totaled $3.9 billion. Every 12 months, one out of two French people visit McDonald's at least once. Annually, they consume 22 million McDonald's salads, 60,000 tons of french fries, 32,000 tons of beef patties, 12,000 tons of chicken, and 600 million buns. Oh, and these numbers are a little outdated.
Rest assured that it's really not your fault if you believed the hype. This sentiment has been echoed in countless publications, namely because it was once the case. McDonald's first tried to break into Europe in the early '70s, hoping to convince people that cheap and easy American fast food was an experience worth having. It worked for a while, then fizzled aggressively as a more nationalist mood and concern over fatty diets and mad cow disease made McDonald's Europe's public enemy No. 1.
You can thank José Bové for his hand in this, though it's not likely McDonald's does. A French farmer and an antiglobalist, Bové drew international attention from a famed video of himself and other activists dismantling a McDonald's franchise in the southern town of Millau in 1999 to protest its economic practices and hormone-treated beef. He did a three-month stint in jail for his actions but couldn't undo the fact that the people would eat where the people wanted to eat.
In most cases, it's not fast food. But when it is… well, listen to La Coquette, an American living in Paris:
"Learning that the French enjoy McDonald's is a shocking rite of passage for expats, as memorable as learning that the Mona Lisa is approximately the size of a postage stamp and that President Mitterand had two families (one by wife, one by mistress) and everyone really was just fine with that, really," she wrote in January 2006.
Of course, it's a little more complicated than being one of France's dirty little secrets. La Coquette's theory is that the food at McDo's is a little better, "the portions more dainty, the special mayonnaise for the fries more refined—otherwise, how could the delicate French palate enjoy it?"
The New York Times seems to agree. According to its August 25 article, McDonald's intends to spend more than $828 million classing up its European franchises, and they're not stopping with the décor.
"McDonald's is introducing healthier foods and items that cater to regional tastes, like caffè lattes. Hoping to attract more young adults and professionals, in addition to its core customer base of children, the chain is also adding amenities like Internet access and rental iPods," writes Julia Werdigier in the article.
I couldn't care less about hamburgers, yet even remotely, that description worked its magic on me. Is it that easy to collapse into fast food's welcoming arms? Eager to get to the bottom of this, I implored American-born, Paris-residing pastry chef, cookbook author and blogger extraordinaire David Lebovitz to break it down for me, and, according to him at least, the truth is somewhere in between.
"McDo is a fact of life and people go because it's fast, cheap, and open all day and night. Like the U.S., there's a certain segment that goes and a certain segment that doesn't. But they haven't permeated the culture like they have in the U.S.," Lebovitz explains.
Not only are McDo's the first attacked whenever there is an anti-American demonstration, the fact that the company pays far less taxes in France than a regular restaurant or café rubs many a resident the wrong way.
"I avoid them on principle," he said.