McDo serves up a French revolution

Big Mac has taken a big chunk out of France's fast-food market, now comes the Mcbaguette.
A McDonald's restaurant on the Champs Elysees in Paris, the world's third-most expensive commercial property location.
A McDonald's restaurant on the Champs Elysees in Paris, the world's third-most expensive commercial property location.

It could be part of a classic French breakfast: baguettes made by the firm that owns two of France's most familiar baking names, Paul and La Duree, butter from Normandy and assorted jams from the Pyrenees.

Add croissants and, wherever you happened to be in the world, you would feel you were starting the day on the terrace of a Parisian cafe terrace or Provencal country home.

But this petit-dejeuner a la francaise is about to go on sale in French branches of McDonald's, the global fast-food institution that could hardly be more at odds with the country's renowned attachment to traditional food.

More than 30 years after McDo - pronounced MacDough, the common abbreviation in France - introduced the Big Mac and others examples of American culinary culture to French palates, the company has decided its quest for integration calls for more of a French flavour.

Already this year the McCantal, a cheeseburger cooked with Cantal cheese, and le Charolais, using Burgundy beef, have been launched.

From next month, baguette slices spread with butter and jam will be offered for breakfast in France's 130 McCafes, take-away counters located in selected McDonald's restaurants.

And in the new year, they will be followed by a range of baguette-based sandwiches. The innovation is the latest manifestation of McDonald's determination to build on a remarkable success story in its biggest market outside the US.

Despite having to overcome considerable national resistance in the early days, McDonald's has enjoyed rapid growth in France.

Last year there were 1,195 restaurants in 908 local authority districts of the country, with 30 more opening this year. Last year's turnover of €3.9 billion (Dh20.35bn) was 8.1 per cent up on 2009. Some 63,000 people work within the French operation and the drive to open franchises creates 3,000 jobs a year.

Given France's love-hate relationship with "Anglo-Saxon culture", it was surprising that news of the McDonald's new attempt to acknowledge French preferences should appear first in the business pages of Le Figaro, a conservative daily newspaper whose readers include many who would be expected to resent the spread of fast-food establishments.

Comments left at the newspaper's website ranged from warm support (a Francophone American wrote that she might now consider a visit to "McDo" when in France, something she would not do in the US) to mockery and disdain. In the latter category one reader described "a marketing ploy that favours industrialised bakers and presents another excuse not to prepare your own snacks at home using genuine, traditionally baked bread".

More widely, however, there is plenty of evidence that French hostility to McDonald's is much weaker than is often suggested.

It is 12 years since the anti-globalisation militant Jose Bove headed a demonstration that led to a new McDonald's branch being wrecked in the southern French town of Millau.

And he would not be impressed by the company's emphasis on French ingredients.

But all the signs are that fast food, convenient and relatively cheap, has been embraced no less heartily in France than elsewhere.

High prices are putting trips to brasseries and bistros out of the reach of many ordinary French people. For them, McDonald's - especially if the experience still "feels French", involving at least two courses taken at the table - offers an affordable alternative.

"During the first 15 years of McDonald's in France, we offered above all a small slice of America and imported its model," Nawfal Trabelsi, the senior vice president of McDonald's France and southern Europe, told Le Figaro. "Today we are part of the everyday life of the French. Our priority is to integrate ourselves locally and give a tint of French culture to our historic fare of hamburgers and ice cream, while at the same time inventing new kinds of sandwich."

The move makes commercial sense. Just as McDonald's responds to local customs in other parts of the world - including even North America, where "McLobster" rolls are sold in Nova Scotia and New England - the introduction of baguettes in French outlets is intended to reflect national taste.

Mr Trabelsi said research showed the French ate nine times more sandwiches than burgers and that 60 per cent were baguette-based.

Breakfast accounts for less than 1 per cent of McDonald's revenue in France and the company says it would be delighted at least to double that part of its turnover.

"Diversifying how we offer bread is central to our strategy of product development," Mr Trabelsi said.

He may feel able to rely on eager customers outnumbering food snobs. Even in France, some consider high-minded attitudes to eating have more to do with posturing than practice.

When a McDonald's branch appeared in the mall beneath the Louvre in central Paris two years ago, Dr Alain Drouard, the French president of the International Commission for Research into European Food History, was quoted as saying: "Gastronomy is a discourse, it is about collective belief. There is a gap between this discourse and what the French eat."

Published: August 3, 2011 04:00 AM


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