Tuesday, August 19, 2008

How the French learnt to love McDonald's

McDonald's makes more money in France than it does in Britain, and Paris has as many golden arches as London - but no self-respecting French diner will admit to eating there

Magali, the photographer, is appalled. We are in McDonald's, just around the corner from the Louvre in the 1st arrondissement of Paris, and we are tucking into some breakfast. With a beer. Because we can.

“But what ees thees?” she demands. Croque monsieur. Well, technically a Croque McDo. Jambon and a spot of fromage. It's rather good.

“No,” says Magali. “It is not. A croque is something ... beautiful. But thees is ... my god.”

Correction. Magali is not appalled. This is something deeper than appalled. This is existential.

Magali doesn't eat in McDonald's. In fact, she says, she doesn't know anybody who eats in McDonald's. Stop any Frenchman on the street - and we stop plenty - and he will shrug and snarl and say that he doesn't eat in McDonald's, either.

Yet an awful lot of people do eat in McDonald's. In this city of all things haute cuisine and gastronomique, you will find almost 70 restaurants under golden arches, with even more dotted around the outer suburbs. That's much the same as London, but with only a third of the people.

McDonald's, or “macdoh” as it is ubiquitously known, is France's dirty secret. In 2007, as you may have read on our business pages, the chain's French revenues increased by 11 per cent to €3 billion (£2.3 billion). That's more than it generates in Britain. In terms of profit, France is second only to the US itself - and this in the land that first realised that food wasn't just about eating. How on earth did this come about?

Asking the customers can take you only so far. At the next table a family are eating together. “We're only in here because we're in a rush,” says the father, much like a husband explaining a mistress to his incredulous wife. “It's not normal. We would never eat in McDonald's usually.” He says that he is from Montreal, anyway, and that we may refer to him only as Mr X. The rest of the family stay silent, and munch, and blush.

This year, for the first time, McDonald's looks likely to make the bulk of its earnings from outside the US. This has much to do with the French, and not just with their eating. McDonald's in Europe has changed. Three years ago, Denis Hennequin - president of the chain in Europe and a Frenchman - embarked on a makeover of the Continent's outlets. Just outside Paris there is now the McDonald's European design studio, which has created a variety of theoretically upmarket restaurant templates.

“We have eight concepts at the moment,” says Stephen Douglas, implementation director in the European design studio, “but none are France-specific.” They are Quality, Eternity, Generation, Lim, and Pure and Simple, with three variations thrown in to make up the eight. Some are intended to give a business vibe, some are targeted at families. Eternity is the most impressive and design-heavy. “It provides a fast-food environment that is significantly different,” says Douglas, “inspired by an American architectural heritage.” In other words, your average McDonald's no longer looks like a crèche in a lunatic asylum on a cross- Channel ferry.

But it's not exactly a chic French bistro, either. And the food remains much the same, in France or anywhere. There are different regional flourishes, to be sure. You can drink your beer in France, although nobody except me seems to bother. You can have your (photographer-derided) croque. Also, as you may remember from Samuel L Jackson in Pulp Fiction, what you call a cheeseburger is known in these parts as a Royal Cheese, and your cheese is the Alpine delicacy reblochon.

All of which might seem terribly exciting if you lived in, say, Stornoway. But Paris? Part of the chain's success may be down to the way that France has changed, and continues to change. In the British stereotype, the Frenchman - banker or binman - takes a long lunch. He goes to the flawless restaurant around the corner, sits down at his usual white-and-red-checked table, undoes his top button and tucks in. He starts with a baguette, he orders a bottle of red wine. Two, maybe three hours later he finishes his cheese, emits a discreet belch and settles the bill, which comes to about €3. Then he gets back to work.

This is no longer true. Or at least, it is no longer entirely true. As the French have begun to adopt Anglo-American working practices, they have also begun to adopt Anglo-American eating practices. One oft-quoted statistic is that the length of the average French meal has fallen from 1 hour 22 minutes in 1978 to a mere 38 minutes today.

To find out how they fill that 38 minutes we head to the 9th arrondissement, an area full of offices and office workers, evidently requiring a considerable number of lunches each day. The streets here are relatively narrow and the buildings relatively high, but flat-fronted and wood-shuttered in that very Parisian way. At street level, everything is food: Pizza Venezia, Café la Roseraie, quite a few McDonald's, too. We pass one with a super-fast takeaway hatch, like a walk-thru drive-thru. It is next door to a gym.

Aside from the many McDonald's, we are told, the big change around here is that an awful lot of these little cafés don't have much room to sit. You are not expected to sit. You are expected to grab your food and go away. Like an American. Or, worse, like a Brit.

Typical of these new places is the shorthand-unfriendly CinQfrUitSetLeGumEScHaQueJoUr. That is to say, “five fruits and five vegetables each day” but with the words all run together and capitals applied with wild Gallic abandon. Fast food or not, the vibe here is all about health.

“Our typical clientele is businessmen. A lot of creative types,” says Robert Renaud, 47, who is the co-owner and knows everybody who so much as wanders past the window. “The women love it: they are much more up for trying something new. The men just want ham and cheese baguettes.”

Robert agrees that Parisian life has changed. People have a quick lunch so that they can leave earlier and have a longer dinner. It's not that they are no longer interested in savouring mealtimes, he says, just that they are favouring one over the other. “Most people are between the ages of 30 and 35,” he adds. “The old people don't like the idea of takeaway so much.”

Philippe, 35, is one of his last customers and has grabbed something involving salad and goat's cheese. He agrees that people no longer have the time for a long lunch, but takes a more complex view on senior resistance.

“The French do not disapprove of fast food as a meal,” he insists. “What is wrong is to eat between meals. It is the mealtime that is sacred, not the type of food. When your Lord Sandwich invented the sandwich, he did so to eat without stopping. This is not French.”

True enough, even when the French visit McDonald's, they do so differently. They are more likely to visit as a family event, much like our “Canadian” family above. A French McDonald's is busy on a weekday lunchtime but busier still at the weekend. Here, in the birthplace of the Michelin guide, McDonald's is considered a treat. It's enough to make you weep.

Healthy fast food is something new. Unsurprisingly, panting hard on the heels of a convenience food culture comes the chubby spectre of obesity. French obesity rates have rocketed in recent years. According to estimates, 11 per cent of the French are obese and 40 per cent are overweight. This is better than the UK or the US, but it grows by about 5 per cent every year. One thinks of those previously untouched indigenous tribes that manage to wipe themselves out in a generation after being introduced to booze. The French are failing to eat in moderation. For a culture that prides itself on its waistline, this is a difficult failing to accept. Only a few years ago, remember, there was a bestselling diet book called French Women Don't Get Fat. But they do.

Not before time, the French seem to be wising up. In recent years, at least in Paris, there has been a boom in fast-food eateries of the sort described above. The pioneer in this respect is a newish chain called Cojean. It was set up in 2001 by Alain Cojean, who had spent the previous 15 years working in research and development for - yes - McDonald's. Cojean is a very different beast.

We visit the branch across the road from the Louvre. Cool and airy, it is tastefully converted from an elaborately corniced patisserie. It sells fresh salads, proper coffee and sandwiches that are resolutely not triangular. We pick a ham and melon salad with noodles and rocket. The melon tastes as if it has just fallen from a tree, and the ham just scraped from a happy pig. There is a surprise bit of jagged plastic lurking in the middle, true enough, but we are not in McDonald's so we have no urge to sue. It just adds to the sense of handmade authenticity.

At the next table we find Johan, Gilles and Caroline, all groomed, trendy and in their twenties. Johan works in an office near by. The other two are students. They eat, they debate. It is all very French.

“It's not too embarrassing to go to McDonald's. Although I wouldn't go often.”

“Not more than three or four times a month.”

“No. And I don't think of the burger as being part of an invasion of American culture, or anything like that. Burgers generally are much better quality than they used to be. There is a tendency to eat better. More healthily.”

“This stuff is much better than McDonald's. It's really good. I'm not ashamed to be here at all.”

If only Cojean would cross the Channel. Everything looks wonderful, and at only €6 a pop. This place is to Pret A Manger what the Eiffel Tower is to the Blackpool Tower.

Even with takeaway food, the French are deeply reluctant to eat at their desks. They prefer to hang around in the office kitchen or sit in a communal area. The food may have changed but the concept of lunch remains so ingrained in French life that none of the many diners we meet bothers to mention what, for a Brit, is the most striking French culinary fact of all: they don't pay for their lunch. Their employer does. Mais oui. Bien sur.

The French economy may be Anglofying at a rapid rate but, for now, the ticket restaurant survives more or less intact. This is a voucher, normally for between €6 and €12, which every employer provides every day, by law, and which may be spent only on lunch. So you have to go out for lunch. You are being paid to go out for lunch. It is the rules. The French take the ticket restaurant for granted to such an extent that they barely notice it. Most would probably be appalled to realise that the system actually originated, like the sandwich, in Britain. Virtually forgotten about here, they generate heavy tax breaks for employers in France and are often credited with sustaining the French restaurant industry. And, in these troubled times, they could provide a clue to the French fast-food boom. Whereas €10 will pay for only two thirds of your plat du jour, it will pay for your whole takeaway.

Or a meal for two in McDonald's. Not, of course, that we have yet found anybody French who is prepared to admit that the macdoh is their lunch-spot of choice. Around the corner, on Rue La Fayette, we try once more.

Dareth, 33, works in property. “This burger is disgusting,” he admits. “Every couple of months I get a craving. It's a chemical thing, I think. I don't even work near here. I just came for the McDonald's. I had to.”

And does this embarrass him, as a Frenchman?

“I wouldn't know,” shrugs Dareth. “I'm from Switzerland.”


No comments: