BBC Home > BBC News > Europe

McDo: A love-'ate relationship?

10 October 09 11:13 GMT

By Hugh Schofield
BBC News, Paris

The French press has been kept busy this week - not with the news, but with news about the news.

The news was that McDonald's is to open a fast-food restaurant in the Louvre. The news about the news was the way this was reported in the foreign - English-speaking - press.

The news itself did not especially interest French editors. It got a few paragraphs on the economy pages of Le Figaro, and a column in Le Parisien.

The news about the news was a different story. Within a matter of hours, this tale of cultural desecration a la francaise had travelled the world.

Internet users from Shanghai to Saskatchewan were reading in their own online papers how the smell of chips would soon be wafting irreverently past the Mona Lisa. There were cartoons of Ronald McDonald canoodling with the Venus de Milo.

It was le shock et l'horreur as this palace of the holies fell to the wrecking ball of globalised junk.

At least that was how the tale was portrayed abroad. The French picked up on it and ran alarmed reports of the "Look what they're saying about us now" variety.

But the truth is that the original story - the fact that McDonald's is to set up an outlet in the underground shopping-mall that abuts the Louvre - did not strike most French people as particularly surprising.

Why was this so? Why did the French not take to the streets to defend their cuisine, as foreigners apparently believed they should be doing? Had they given up, or what?


The answer is that McDonald's - or McDo as the French prefer to call it - is now rooted in France's social landscape, to a degree that would have been considered impossible 15 years ago.

Frenchification

When people think of McDonald's and France, they think in stereotypes. The Asterix versus Ronald scenario was perfectly encapsulated when the anti-globalisation campaigner Jose Bove ransacked a McDo in 1999, and the cliche has persisted.

Hence the proliferation of foreign stories about the Louvre.

But since then - thanks above all to a brilliant marketing campaign - McDonald's has manoeuvred itself so effectively into the national way of life that it is now almost as invisible as the corner tabac.

Hence the non-proliferation of French stories about the Louvre.

Consider the statistics. There are now more than 1,130 McDonald's outlets in France. Astonishingly, France is the company's second-most profitable market after the United States. It is also the country where customers spend most money per visit.

The trick that McDonald's has pulled off with such success has been to build bridges to the public via a process of Frenchification.

For example, the company makes much of the way it supports French agriculture - a sure-fire heart-warmer in France - by buying 80% of its produce from local farmers.

There was a make-or-break moment in 2001 when for the first time the chain had a stand at the iconic Salon de l'Agriculture (Farm Show) in Paris. This is an annual occasion where the urban French re-charge their sense of rurality, and it could have gone badly wrong for McDonald's.

However, far from being booed out of the hall or sprayed with cow-dung, the McDonald's people were accepted, then welcomed, and they are now a fixture.

"McDonald's is now seen as fully part of the French agricultural community," says one of its press people.

At the same time, the company has also Frenchified its product. In addition to the normal array of Big Macs and deep-fried chicken nuggets, it offers salads, raw vegetable snacks and fruit.

Some outlets have been given designer treatment, with Wi-fi and new-look furniture, as a way of breaking away from the lard-butt image.

And there are now some 90 McCafes, which compete directly with traditional French cafés. According to the McDonald's press people, there is even an outlet in Nice where old people gather in the afternoons to play bridge - so firmly has it entered local habits.

But, of course, the main reason that the chain has done so well is that it provides cheap meals. Fast-foods of all varieties are booming in France - kebabs, paninis, pizzas - simply because a large part of the population can afford nothing else.

And if fingers are to be pointed, surely the greatest blame for the success of fast-food attaches to French cooking itself, for failing to provide any home-grown alternative.

Of course there are many in France who are indeed outraged by the news of the Louvre.

One such is Bernard Hasquenof, who runs the Louvre pour Tous (Louvre for all) internet site. For him McDonald's is above all a symbol, whose presence next to the museum signifies a regrettable commercialisation of what was once pure.

"It is a great paradox which I find very sad - that the French should have such a great tradition of cooking and culture, and yet turn in such numbers to McDonald's - which for me is a kind of under-culture, an under-cuisine," he told the BBC.

"But they have been very clever. They have become part of society. They are unavoidable. Let's face it, even I sometimes go there."

As for Francois Simon, France's best-known food critic and the man said to have inspired Anton Ego in the Pixar film Ratatouille, he thinks the French papers were right to ignore the story.

"It is a complete non-event," he told the BBC. "The Louvre mall already contains other fast-foods. And if you want my opinion, McDonald's is far from being the worst."

Related BBC sites

*