How McDonald's conquered France.

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June 25 2009 1:43 PM

How McDonald's Conquered France

The fast-food chain's most surprising success.

McDonald's in Paris.
McDonald's in Paris with the Arc de Triomphe in the background

In his new book, Au Revoir to All That: Food, Wine, and the End of France, Slate wine columnist Mike Steinberger examines the startling decline of French cuisine over the past few decades, explaining how a country that turned eating and drinking into an art form has lost its touch for cheese, wine, food, and fine dining. In yesterday's excerpt, Steinberger explained how the Michelin guide, which once celebrated the pinnacles of French culinary achievement, became a "millstone" around the necks of the nation's chefs. Today's excerpt, the second of two, explains how McDonald's conquered France—its second-biggest market in the world.

On a bright, mild Sunday afternoon in March 2007, at a convention center in Paris, the annual Salon International de l'Agriculture was winding down. The Salon was a week-long trade show that literally brought the farm to the city. Hundreds of farmers and truckloads of farm animals came to Paris to give urbanites a taste of la France Profonde. It was an opportunity for city kids to pet horses, chase chickens, and be flabbergasted by the amount of waste matter that poured out of cows. It was also an occasion to showcase the meats, cheeses, and wines that made the French countryside such a cherished source of sustenance. No less than that, the event was a way for Parisians to express their support of French agriculture—in a sense, to reaffirm their own Frenchness. The patriotic overtones were catnip for politicians: President Jacques Chirac had kicked off the Salon the previous Sunday, and the floor traffic throughout the week included a steady flow of ministers and members of parliament.

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Encouraged by the nice weather, an enormous crowd had turned out for the Salon's closing day. Most of the visitors were families with young children. They formed a striking portrait of the new, multicultural France: Many of them were white, but many others were of African, Caribbean, and Middle Eastern descent. Hijabs were nearly as ubiquitous as baseball caps and sneakers. By now, a full week into this jamboree, animal droppings and strands of hay were everywhere and the place reeked of the barnyard; judging by your nose and the bottom of your shoes, you really might have thought you were down on the farm—that is, until the big, splashy McDonald's exhibit, located toward the back of the livestock hall, came into view. What the hell was that doing here, and why was it crawling with people?

As I moved closer, I discovered that no food was being sold; instead, McDonald's was feeding its guests corporate propaganda. Large, colorful placards ringed the display, documenting the amount of French beef, poultry, and vegetables that McDonald's used, detailing the nutritional value of the food it served, and describing the company's eco-friendly practices. The words were accompanied by lots of pastoral imagery—cows, potatoes, sheaves of wheat. Children weren't spared the charm offensive. At an activity table, a sign reading D'où vient ton McDo? (Where does your McDonald's come from?) was adorned with more pictures of chickens and cows. Judging by the display, you would never have guessed that it belonged to an American fast-food chain. That, apparently, was the idea. Cooked down to its essence, the message from McDonald's was that its food was French, it was good for you, and it was good for the environment. I wasn't buying it, but the intended audience clearly was. Didn't these kids realize that McDonald's was the Trojan horse of mondialisation and that they were committing cultural treason? Why weren't their parents stopping them?

In the battle for France, Jose Bové, the protester who vandalized a McDonald's in 1999 and was then running for president, proved to be no match for Le Big Mac. The first round of the presidential election was held on April 22, and Bové finished an embarrassing tenth, garnering barely 1 percent of the total vote. By then, McDonald's had eleven hundred restaurants in France, three hundred more than it had had when Bové gave new meaning to the term "drive-through." The company was pulling in over a million people per day in France, and annual turnover was growing at twice the rate it was in the United States. Arresting as those numbers were, there was an even more astonishing data point: By 2007, France had become the second-most profitable market in the world for McDonald's, surpassed only by the land that gave the world fast food. Against McDonald's, Bové had lost in a landslide.

As reprehensible as Bové's tactics were, it was difficult for a food-loving Francophile not to feel a little solidarity with him. If you believed that McDonald's was a blight on the American landscape, seeing it on French soil was like finding a peep show at the Vatican, and in a contest between Roquefort and Chicken McNuggets, I knew which side I was on. But implicit in this attitude was a belief that McDonald's had somehow been foisted on the French; that slick American marketing had lured them away from the bistro and into the arms of Ronald McDonald. However, that just wasn't true. The French came to McDonald's and la malbouffe (or fast-food) willingly, and in vast and steadily rising numbers. Indeed, the quarter-pounded conquest of France was not the result of some fiendish American plot to subvert French food culture. It was an inside job, and not merely in the sense that the French public was lovin' it—the architects of McDonald's strategy in France were French.

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