To Many French, Ugly American Is McDonald’s
McDonald’s in France has faced the ire of ransacking peasants and the scorn of a president known for relishing calves’ heads more than cheeseburgers. This week, the attacks on the U.S. fast-food giant crossed a threshold when a bombing killed one of its employees.
Denis Hennequin, president and CEO of McDonald’s France, begged his countrymen Friday to stop thinking of his chain as anything other than restaurants staffed by industrious employees. But for an increasing number of the French, among them some opinion makers in Paris, McDonald’s--McDo in common parlance--has come to be viewed as a sinister beachhead of objectionable American values, including globally homogenized tastes, bad food and obesity through poor diet.
France’s elected leaders, while deploring any violence against the U.S.-based multinational, have done little if anything to improve McDonald’s image. Jean Glavany, the Socialist minister of agriculture, has even publicly referred to the United States as home to the world’s worst food.
Nevertheless, in a sort of culinary schizophrenia, enough of the French keep downing Big Macs and other McDonald’s fare to keep 804 outlets up and running in the land of gourmet cuisine and the four-hour Sunday lunch. More restaurant openings are planned this year.
“McDo is a symbol, and we can’t do anything about that,” Hennequin said in a radio interview. “You can’t decide whether to be one or not. But behind this business, there are men and women who work, and I’d like people to respect them.”
Earlier this week, an unidentified bomber or bombers placed three pounds of dynamite outside the drive-through of a McDonald’s near Dinan in Brittany. Police said the kitchen timer that was supposed to set the bomb off during the night, when the restaurant is usually empty, didn’t work.
Instead, the device exploded when Laurence Turbec, a 28-year-old team leader on the breakfast shift, pushed open the door early Wednesday, disturbing the charge.
Investigators suspected a small separatist group, the Breton Revolutionary Army, of the bombing. It was the first terrorist action in France to claim a life since December 1996.
There is no evidence linking the suspects in Brittany to other problems McDonald’s has experienced in France and elsewhere in Europe. But investigators poring over the journal of the far-left movement’s political wing, Emgann, did find two articles vilifying McDonald’s, the newspaper Le Parisien reported.
The pieces accused the company founded by the late Californian Ray Kroc of “ruining [customers’] health,” “making populations of the Third World go hungry,” “threatening the environment,” “torturing animals” and “systematically exploiting employees, especially women.”
All McDonald’s restaurants in Brittany will close today during Turbec’s funeral.
“I would like to express a sentiment of anger and revolt,” Hennequin said in the interview. “I think this time, people have gone over the limit, and I hope that this will serve at the same time as a call for a bit more calm and a bit more reason.”
Since last year, when the U.S. slapped punitive tariffs on the European Union for refusing to allow imports of hormone-fed U.S. beef, McDonald’s has found itself on the griddle of mounting criticism in France and other countries on the Continent. One product affected by the increasing U.S. tariffs is Roquefort, and in August, a group of peasants in the region of southwestern France where the pungent cheese is made overran and wrecked the construction site of a new McDonald’s in the town of Millau.
Their leader, pipe-smoking and mustachioed sheep farmer Jose Bove, 47, became an instant folk hero. This week, Bove stoutly condemned the bombing in Brittany, calling it “pointless and imbecilic.”
“For us, McDo is a symbol of industrial nutrition and a multinational corporation that is trying to put down roots everywhere,” Bove said in a newspaper interview. “And it is [only] as a symbol that we attacked it.”
Nonetheless, the farmers’ blow at the globe-girdling corporation made something vibrate deep in the French character.
“We are all peasants in the ethical sense of the term,” President Jacques Chirac mused in September during a plowing contest in the wheat fields of Champagne. The general drift of the French leader’s speech was that national ways of farming, and of eating, have to be protected against invaders from across the Atlantic.
In January, when world political and business leaders gathered for their annual klatch in the Swiss Alpine resort village of Davos, protesters opposed to corporate “McGreed” or “McDomination” smashed the local McDonald’s windows.
And on Aug. 12, a McDonald’s in Merksem in northern Belgium was destroyed in a fire that authorities said was arson. A Dutch group, the Animal Liberation Front, claimed responsibility for the $1.2-million blaze. The group accuses McDonald’s of destroying tropical rain forests to create pasture for beef cattle, of mistreating animals and of being one of the biggest producers of garbage in the world.
Like other Europeans, the French have been debating whether to adopt the more freewheeling ways of the U.S. economy. Here too, McDonald’s has become a stand-in for the American way, which many in France see as pitiless for society’s losers.
Last month, a 23-year-old McDonald’s employee in Albi rocketed to prominence when he claimed he had been fired for having given five cheeseburgers to a beggar. The food, Remi Millet claimed, was his own lunch. Whatever the merits of the case, a brief TV news report confirmed for millions their worst suspicions about the inhumanity of U.S.-style capitalism.
Under increasing fire from many directions, McDonald’s here has opted to appear as French as possible, dressing up sandwiches with cheese, herbs and other foods from the south of France. Last year, it ran newspaper ads poking fun at Americans’ supposed boorishness when it comes to food and noting that 80% of the foodstuffs McDonald’s serves in France are produced in France.
But in France, nothing is as symbolic as food, and some have already decided that McDonald’s and its fast-food competitors are the enemy.
“The camp of the hamburger is that of planetary liberal-socialism, where man is only an object of production and consumption, the elementary unit of the consumerist planning of markets,” two leaders of the far-right National Front of Jean-Marie Le Pen have asserted.