“Mais oui, my friends and I love eating at McDo!” And this was the answer that I did not intuitively expect from the dainty French girl sharing a coffee and pastry sitting across from me at one of Dijon’s most popular cafés. Consumed in my excitement about moving to France, I had apparently forgotten that McDonald’s (popularly known as “McDo” throughout the French speaking world) was a heavy hitting worldwide fast food brand after boarding the flight to Paris. At second thought though, her response shouldn’t have been at all surprising given globalizing food trends, the general popularity of American culture among French youth, and gradual societal change. All the same, every Rocquefort and escargot loving part or me sat confused and somewhat deceived.
This girl (we’ll call her Charlotte) and I had been meeting to practice her English a couple of times a week since I began studying at the Université de Bourgogne during the fall of last year. I wasn’t staying with a host family at the time, so Charlotte and I used our time as an exchange. Before learning more about quotidian France through this and several other relationships, I had shamelessly glorified the esteemed French approach to food: the terroir, the restaurants, the feast, and the overall lifestyle. It’s perhaps the world’s dominant gastronomic icon, and a food culture that’s been all but praised by casual tourists, francophiles, and natives alike – so no way that this “love” of McDo can be serious, right?
After a little research, it became obvious that it – surprisingly – is. In his book The French Challenge: Adopting to Globalization (Brookings Institution, 2001), Philip Gordon states that the total number of fast food and take out businesses in France doubled from 6,500 in 1993 to 13,950 in 1998. Simultaneously, the number of traditional brasseries and cafés dropped from 200,000 in 1960 to 50,000 in 2001. McDo France, specifically, now averages one million customers a day and according to Michael Steinberger in his book Au Revoir to All That: Food, Wine, and the End of France (Bloomsbury USA, 2009), annual turnover is growing at twice the rate than it is in the United States. As a result, France became the second-most profitable market in the world after the United States for McDonald’s in 2007. It’s hard to believe that such statistics are possible for a country where the traditional gastronomic culture and cuisine belongs to the UNESCO cultural heritage list.
Curious and always wanting to have the “French” experience, I went. I invited my boyfriend (who’s French and whose eyes grew wide at the invitation) on a date to the central McDo on the Rue de la Liberté in Dijon. Ironically enough, it’s located under majestic Burgundian flags on the corner directly opposite of the original MailleMustard House – aka, the place that helped to give this town it’s worldwide gastronomic and condiment reputation nearly 300 years ago. We arrived for a relatively late dinner and the line pushed out the doors, as it normally does.
Most of the customers were at or below 30 and the menu largely resembled the last McDonald’s menu that I had visited in the US: various hamburgers, fish sandwiches, chicken sandwiches, salads, fries, and ice cream desserts. Some of what I assumed to be fine-tuned marketing for the local preferences, included Charolais beef patties (the dominant breed of cattle in Burgundy), various grilled meat(s) wraps, melon and pineapple sides in plastic packets, whole what hamburger buns, side salads instead of fries, “pancakes” with Nutella, and the local favorite: la moutarde dijonnaise (Dijon mustard). Michael decided to go classic by taking the “Menu Big Mac,” or the equivalent to the US “combo” meal option: hamburger with whole-wheat bun, fries, and a Coke. I went veg (unless I’m misinformed about the oil that they use) and just took fries.
One of the dominant stereotypes I have after growing up with American McDonald’s is that you go there for a easy, tasty, filling, and cheap meal (e.g. the concept of the one dollar hamburger). But unless I wasn’t paying attention the last time I was at a McDonald’s in the US, this may only be true of American outlets. Our price for a combo and extra fry was 9.35 euros, or close to twelve American dollars. Along with Michael’s evidently expensive Charolais beef, whole grain Dijon mustard, and wheat bun Big Mac went my assumption that eating at McDo was always “economique.”
We found a seat on the second floor beneath a portrait of an awkward Ronald McDonald waving from a vineyard. We could watch the street like we can at any local café, bar, or brasserie through arched windows framing historical Burgundian icons. According to the stares I received while taking pictures of this typical French McDo establishment, evidently I was the gawking tourist who found this setting both very bizarre and (thanks to the depiction of the Hamburglar on horseback in a field adjacent to Ronald’s vineyard) very funny. Their judgmental stares quickly informed me that I was the only one, though. Sitting down next to Michael (also unphased by McDonaldland à la Bourguignon mural), I grabbed my fry and waiting for him to reveal this roughly $8 Big Mac.
I expected the hamburger to be as big, if not bigger, than the US equivalent. However, indistinguishable from the pictures, the general portion sizes were much smaller than what I remember from American meals. I’m talking normal dollar menu size, but a little more vertical given two patties of meat and a bun in the middle. Regular meals here apparently don’t come as the Triple Super Max Large (or whatever) Big Mac size that I had expected. And the taste? Personally, I thought it was like any other McDo hamburger I’d had in the US: salty, meaty (hard to specify what kind), and somehow sweet. Feeling a little confused about France’s seemingly contraditory food preferences, I quietly finished of my fries with a packet of the restaurant’s Dijon mustard.
My reaction to McDo en France, however, was perhaps only evidence of my own initial impression as an American outsider who admires an old stereotype of French food culture. Like many others, I romanticize the tradition, but this tradition is an archetype according to the French. As it would since France is a modern country, popular eating has naturally evolved from daily preparations of poulet rôti and boeuf bourguignon. A multiple course and communal dinner remains the norm though; although now those multiple courses might imply fruit sealed in a plastic sack, followed by a Big Mac and fries, then a McFlurry, and washed down a Coke while seated under a mural featuring Ronald’s purple friend, the Grimace, milking a cow (Like French cheese and local breeds of cattle, I assume that his depiction is subject to change according to region).
As strange as the image of the McDonald’s characters in rural Burgundy might seem, it’s actually a somewhat outdated but lasting symbol of how McDonald’s has been able to succeed in France. Like Ronald and friends in said oddly bucolic image, the company became French. For example, McDo sourced 75 percent of its ingredients domestically as of 2001 according to Steinberger. This fact, in addition to an extremely well executed marketing campaign appealing to social values including smaller portion sizes, use of comparatively expensive regional food ingredients (e.g. Charolais beef and Dijon mustard), respect for environmental concerns (they advertise Rainforest Alliance certified teas and Fair Trade certified coffees), and just enough Americana to keep the chain’s image out of direct competition with the traditional French restaurant establishment. Whereas the symbol of McDonald’s is often cited as evidence of globalization, a closer look at the French model reveals that instead of trying to dominate a society’s food values, the successful McDo model has instead attempted to mirror them.
It became clear to me while Michael and I were leaving the restaurant and past the Maille mustard boutique that these, among other reasons, are why that there hasn’t been any large resistance against their juxtaposition. They seemingly, if not paradoxically, coexist. McDo has built its own high quality identity in an effort to distance itself from negative stereotypes. In doing so, it’s even won the respect of the French culinary élite refer to it as “an expression of the modern condition” since “eating well takes lots of time” and modern France – like the rest of the Western world – moves fast (Steinberger, 117). The comparatively “slower” ideals of traditional French food culture still have a very strong presence and play a lead role in cultural identity, but as long as McDo continues to sell what this changing society demands, then it seems that the McDonald’s on the Champs-Élysées will most likely remain the most frequented eating establishment in all of France (Gordon, 55).