Back in 1999, a sheep farmer in an Asterix mustache led a small band of Gauls on a Big Mac attack heard ‘round the world. A proud, feisty France, he exulted, humbled Imperial McDonald’s.
The symbols seemed perfect. Asterix, a French comic-book hero who drew super-strength from a magic potion, saved his corner of Gaul from Rome. But, in time, the Empire struck back.
Today Jose Bove, the Farmers’ Confederation firebrand, risks slipping away into history. “McDo” cash registers at 1,030 locations, meanwhile, ring up a million sales a day to French customers.
McDonald’s France reported 2003 revenue approaching $3 billion and is the most profitable subsidiary in Europe. It will open 40 more restaurants in 2004, 10% of the chain’s new outlets worldwide.
To a young generation, those golden arches in 750 big cities and tiny towns say as much, in their way, as the stately Arc de Triomphe that Napoleon raised two centuries ago on the Champs-Elysees.
Even during 2002, when the Chicago-based company seemed to have peaked worldwide and lost its way, the French faithful never slackened their pace.
The issue goes far beyond hamburgers. In a society that asserts dominion over fine food -- and places priority on protecting labor -- the phenomenon of “McDo,” as the French call it, exposes flaws in the French self-image.
Workers protesting minimum-wage pay closed one Paris McDonald’s for 363 days. Their slogan, “We’re not ground beef,” came with a logo: a bun around the word “Beurk.” That means “Barf.”
But a settlement in March bought the organizers’ silence. By late this month, the counter should be crowded again until late night.
Nationalists’ verbal abuse did not stem the growth. Even bloodshed failed. Brittany separatists bombed a McDonald’s in 2000, killing a young French female employee. In bitter backlash, thousands rallied outside the Breton regional parliament to protest the death.
Across France, the chain’s executives say, people have voted with their stomachs. Good restaurants still do well, and a lost Michelin star still invites ruin. But the French also want reliable, cheap, hot food at all hours, not just at mealtimes.
In the symbol-strewn saga of McDonald’s in France, nothing makes the point like the McDo at Millau, a busy little southern city in the heart of Roquefort cheese country.
“Ah yes, you remember that?” said Marc Dehani, who now laughs at the black day when Bove’s demonstrators trashed his eatery a month before its opening, causing $150,000 in damage.
“It was supposed to be a peaceful protest at the nearby traffic circle against American tax on Roquefort,” he said. “But they headed straight for us and tore down our fence. No one mentioned cheese.”
Dehani scrambled to rebuild the kitchen and dining room while recruiting workers to replace those who fled the local drama. The newly refitted doors opened on time.
Now, on any given lunch break, French people of all sorts and ages jam into four long lines to order, while cars by the dozen wait at the McDrive windows. Kids play on colorful towers in the yard outside.
Renee Humiliere loaded two happy-looking grandchildren into her small sedan to head home after the family’s unbreakable Wednesday lunch date at McDo.
“It’s a wonderful ambience, clean, bright, welcoming to everyone, and I always have a good time,” she said.
Plenty of French still curse the American-based chain in clear terms, and many refuse to try it. Chloe Doutre-Roussel, a chocolate expert with an expert palate, crosses the street to avoid even a fleeting whiff of frying Big Macs.
But hate it or love it, it is not going away.
“Look, all the Americans want from us is respect for the trademark and a royalty check,” Dehani said. “For the rest, McDonald’s France is all French.”
Denis Hennequin, who built up the France division over two decades and now heads the 42-country European region, echoes his thought.
“They take a pragmatic approach in Chicago,” he said. “As long as we’re making money for them, they don’t care if we spend money to do it. If something works, they’re happy.”
Any fast-food connoisseur will recognize the standard-issue hamburgers, chicken, fries and drinks. But local touches include France’s beloved croque monsieur of cheese and ham on toast, along with high-carb pastries and fresh fruit.
In “Pulp Fiction,” John Travolta’s character noted that a French Quarter-Pounder was a Royale with Cheese. Now the big burger is a half-pounder, called a “280" -- un deux cent quatre-vingts. That’s its weight in grams.
Paris architects border on heresy. Although McDonald’s routinely models its restaurants to fit local decor, the French seek to add a touch of class, with unfamiliar colors and carved woodwork.
The arches are sacrosanct, but in places they are reduced in size to blend in with cities’ old-world flavor.
And now the latest: French nutritionists Jean-Michel Cohen and Patrick Serog report that a Big Mac is much healthier than quiche lorraine.
When Bove chose McDonald’s as a symbol of globalized domination, he likened his assault to the Boston Tea Party, evoking the tradition of American colonials fighting off Britain’s imprint.
Someone suggested McDonald’s could offer cheeseburgers with Roquefort, but Bove told a reporter that would be like selling holy water in a sex shop.
McDonald’s fought back with newspaper ads listing how many French cows, chickens, potatoes and heads of lettuce it used each year.
Since then, the chain has hammered away at the same theme: It supports French farmers and employs 42,000 French workers.
Bove was jailed briefly for the McDonald’s assault, and has since moved on to other things.
In 2002 he got himself expelled from Israel for visiting Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat without permission. The other day he flew to Romania to energize farmers there.
Reached by cellphone at the airport in Istanbul, Turkey, Bove said, “Nothing has changed in our position.”
But he added that his enemy was all such global chains, not just McDonald’s.
Last year he went back to jail for destroying an experimental field growing genetically modified grain. President Jacques Chirac commuted his sentence, but many berated Bove for hampering an effort to feed poor countries.
“Bove used us to make himself famous, and now he is on to something else,” said Hennequin, the McDonald’s Europe director. “And so are we.”
Jean-Pierre Petit, Hennequin’s successor as director in France, explained: “We’re past the period of wonderment at this new American concept, and now we’re in a second stage of development. We want to adapt the standard formula to what France likes.”
Hennequin and Petit spoke to a reporter after they finished a three-course lunch at the trendy restaurant San Francisco. Neither, they said, had a hamburger.
McDonald’s first came to Paris in the mid-1970s when a Frenchman living in Chicago obtained the franchise to open a handful of outlets. The chain withdrew support, saying quality was not up to standard.
After a transition period as “O’Kitch,” the restaurants reopened as McDonald’s in 1984, and they caught on fast. In 1997, Hennequin bought out a score of struggling Burger Kings to corner the market.
Resistance to American fashion is hardly new in France. When Le Drugstore, an American-style hangout, opened on the Champs-Elysees in 1962 and others followed, nationalists decried the end of civilization. The first McDonald’s brought howls of protest.
But now KFC and Pizza Hut thrive, and Starbucks has opened in Paris.
At first, France had trouble catching on to the burger culture. An early customer recalls overhearing a gentleman in a silk tie order his first Big Mac. “Not too well done.”
Hennequin says McDonald’s conquered France by default.
“There was nothing similar when we started, and in some remote areas, there was nothing at all,” he said. “Our real competition is the kitchen fridge. Either people come to McDo, or they stay home.”
Because of France’s 35-hour workweek, traditional restaurants are open only for a few hours at lunch and dinner, and most close at least one day a week. McDonald’s stays open from breakfast time to late at night.
Abdel Mabrouki, the young author of “Precarious Generation,” which excoriates his employer -- Pizza Hut -- and other global chains, says fast-food operators squeeze their workers to unfair limits.
“Their philosophy is to exploit young people and make sure they move on within a few years so they don’t become a benefits liability,” Mabrouki said.
But even virulent critics agree that McDo is now a fact of French life.
Francoise Pouget, who lectures on cooking and food habits, counsels against head-on opposition. “If you demonize it, you make it forbidden fruit,” she said. “Like hiding the jam jar. Kids always find it. We have to counter it by strengthening our real culinary traditions.”
In any case, Mabrouki said, it is not all bad.
“Most restaurateurs think only of immediate profit,” he said. “At McDo, you can walk in off the street and use the bathroom. Students hang out for hours without buying anything. Try that in a French cafe.”