Sharply opinionated waiters, beautifully set tables and long, leisurely meals are the hallmarks of classic French dining, a culinary tradition that’s been the epitome of elegance, at least to Americans, for decades. But America’s food culture — fast, utilitarian, unworried about terroir or provenance — may have had a greater influence on Gallic palates than the other way around.
McDonald’s is a popular tourist drop-in, as exhausted travelers revel in both its Americanness — everything just where you left it — and its slight French touches, like macarons for dessert. But French people love their American fast food too. “Metro, boulot, dodo” goes a popular French phrase describing busy city life: subway, job, sleep. But it’s not uncommon to hear a slightly different version: Metro, boulot, McDo.
Fast food now accounts for an estimated $62.2 billion of France’s $102 billion restaurant industry. McDonald’s alone takes in $5.5 billion, the highest turnover of any French restaurant group.
While France has the second-highest number of McDonald’s restaurants in Europe (Germany is still No. 1), it’s seen a 4 percent growth just since 2016. And it’s way out ahead of any other fast-food chain: The Bertrand Group, which owns Burger King, Au Bureau, Quick and Hippopotamus, earned less than $2 billion in 2017.
In 1999, French farmers nearly rioted against the fast-food giant, piling manure and rotting food in front of locations. Sheep farmer José Bové was even touted as an anti-globalization hero when he ransacked a McDonald’s in the French village of Millau. Today, McDonald’s is proudly represented at France’s prestigious Salon de l’Agriculture, and a group of workers in Marseille just fought and won a court battle to keep their workplace from being sold, arguing that it offered troubled neighborhood kids an alternative to dealing drugs.
A big part of McDonald’s appeal in France could come down to its marketing. Advertising guru Jean-Phillipe Petit, who subsequently became the French CEO of McDo in 2004, poured billions into completely redesigning the restaurant chain to suit French sensibilities. In France, McDonald’s restaurants aren’t the poorly lit red-and-yellow fast-food joints that we in America are accustomed to — they’re sleek modernist structures with huge glass windows that let in natural light. In the “McCafé” section of the restaurant, patrons sit on leather couches and sip coffee from ceramic cups, perhaps enjoying a macaron served on a real plate. Many McDonald’s in France also offer table service. Because it seems more like a real sit-down restaurant, French patrons treat eating at McDo more like an event, with 75 percent of customers choosing to eat their meals on the premises.
In his tell-all book I Sold My Soul to McDonald’s, Petit tells the story of how he “greened” McDo, swapping the familiar yellow-and-red themes for forest green, a color that evokes nature and calm. Petit also got rid of Ronald McDonald and the rest of the chain’s mascots and launched an ad campaign that focused on the chain’s customers, employees and farmers. These ads evoked a sense of French patriotism and successfully wove McDonald’s into France’s proud agricultural history. “Little by little, we would improve it and make it our own,” he wrote. “Or we would get used to it.”
McDonald’s is also a titan of job production in an otherwise sluggish French economy. With a growth rate that is 5 to 10 percent greater than the French economy, as a whole McDo is one of the largest sources of private-sector jobs in the country. It employs upwards of 70,000 people, adding an average of 3,000 more each year. “I liked working at McDonald’s; the hygiene standards were surprisingly high, and I was treated well,” says Jerome Duca, a former French McDonald’s employee. “I think it is a good first working experience, though it can be a bit stressful.”
But not all of McDonald’s employees are happy — in 2018 a rash of protests broke out against the company, with current and former employees lobbying for pay increases. A recent government report blamed France’s skyrocketing obesity rate — by 2030, the country is expected to have 30 million overweight or obese citizens — on its love for fast food. Fast, of course, may be the operative word: French workers now get an average of 31 minutes for lunch.
In spite of these statistics, however, not all health professionals are worried about the presence of McDonald’s in France. “While there is a strong demand for fast food in Paris, I would say there is an even stronger one for healthy and balanced meals,” says French nutritionist Laetitia Willerval. “And luckily more and more fast-food chains like McDonald’s are offering more balanced and vegetarian options.”
Over the years, French McDonald’s has proven its ability to adapt to its customers’ demands. The jury’s still out on whether that’s a good thing.
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