PARIS - A decade ago, farmers in southwest France trashed a soon-to-open McDonald’s, dismantling most of the interior and dumping it in front of the local town hall. Irritation over American “cultural imperialism” and punitive Roquefort tariffs was running high, and the protesters insisted they wanted to save the nation from “junk food and globalization.”
How much have times changed?
McDonald’s announced at the end of January that it now earns more from sales in Europe - particularly France and Britain - than it does in the United States. The French also spend more per purchase at McDonald’s than anyone else in the world, according to the company’s latest financial report.
McDonald’s isn’t the only emblem of Americana thriving in France. The Euro Disney theme park outside Paris, once a financial disaster maligned as a “cultural Chernobyl” for the country, is now profitable and the most popular tourist attraction in Europe. Who are its fastest-growing new customers? The French, who last quarter helped drive an 8 percent jump in attendance even as a growing recession in Europe kept Disney regulars like the British and Spanish at home.
Are the French getting over their anti-Americanism? Or have American businesses become more French? The answer, analysts say, is both.
“In other markets you can wave the American flag,” noted Jean-Francois Doridot, managing director of a Paris polling agency that has done work for McDonald’s. “Here if you blend in more and don’t fly the flag, people see no reason not to buy.”
In most cases, American cultural icons have taken on an unmistakable Parisian flair to compete in France. Euro Disney’s Disneyland Resort Paris now serves wine. McDonald’s has scrapped its red-and-white plastic decor for muted colors and ultramodern wood-and-steel designs, changes that have become such a hit that McDonald’s executives may experiment with them in the U.S.
Even the McDonald’s menu looks distinctly French: There are seven types of coffee - all brewed from French-roasted beans - as well as French cheeses on burgers and chocolate mousse for dessert. Prominently posted signs detail the chain’s tracking of ingredients and its submission to 35,000 health inspections a year - a crucial assurance in a country where concerns about food quality remain at the forefront.
“There’s not really an American soul in the French McDonald’s,” observed Ludovic Renoir, 40, a Paris tour guide who, motorcycle helmet over his arm, recently ducked into one of the chain’s Paris restaurants for a quick coffee and hamburger.
But a subtle fading of anti-Americanism, particularly as American chains grow more established in France, also has played a role in the success of companies like Disney and McDonald’s.
When it opened 15 years ago, Euro Disney was greeted with strikes, resignations of workers grumpy about being made to wear costumes and feign cheer, and such minuscule turnouts that the theme park quickly rolled up massive financial losses. Critics predicted it would ruin a generation of French children.
Today French families flock on the weekends to the park, which is now profitable and chalked up 6 percent growth in revenue in the last quarter, despite the growing world economic crisis.
“We recognize we are not immune to the impact of a sustained economic downturn,” Philippe Gas, Euro Disney’s CEO, warned at the release of the company’s latest report. But popularity with Europeans, he said, has remained strong, thanks in part to efforts to hold down costs and beef up attractions.
McDonald’s, similarly, has benefited not just from its low prices - a particular asset as the world’s recession-hit look for cheaper eats - but from simply being around so long that it has come to be regarded as part of the French landscape.
Sarah Bolnrepaux, a 19-year-old at a McDonald’s in Paris, looked puzzled to hear that her countrymen had once railed against her Big Mac and fries as a form of cultural imperialism.
“McDonald’s doesn’t seem American,” said the aspiring actress, who admits she grew up eating Happy Meals. “It’s everywhere.”
“I think the French still do see American culture as a threat,” added her friend Chloe Francois, also 19 and an actress. “But McDonald’s is not part of that.”
Even for those who see the American icons for what they are, the experience of handing over a few euros and taking a bite of Americana isn’t necessarily one fraught with cultural peril anymore.
“For me, it’s typically American. But I like to come,” said Laurent Philippi, 38, a radio translator sipping coffee at a Paris McDonald’s. “I have the impression it is an act of traveling.”
As for the French reputation for anti-Americanism, “you mustn’t believe this is a general French sentiment,” he confided. “It’s only a small minority.”