For decades, McDonald’s was the brand French people loved to hate.
From the 1970s it was accused of being the exporter of “mal bouffe” (“bad food”) to the land of fine dining, blamed for introducing millions of French people to high-calorie American fast-food.
It was also resisted as a symbol of US economic and cultural imperialism, particularly by leftwingers, in a country that remains suspicious of globalisation — and more eager than most to defend its own language and culture.
French farmer and one-time presidential candidate Jose Bove built a political career through his opposition to McDonald’s which saw him trash a restaurant in the south of France in 1999.
And resistance to the golden arches continues: a mayor on the island of Oleron in western France has famously battled to keep the company out, and the brand is still a favourite target of anti-capitalist protesters during street demonstrations.
‘There’s nothing else’
But in a turn of events that would have French food purists choking, campaigners including local lawmakers have mobilised to save, not shut, a restaurant in one of the poorest suburbs of the southern city of Marseille.
“From the outside it might seem to be just another restaurant,” local MP and hard-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon said in a visit last month to the outlet where he was cheered and applauded.
“But it’s the only place where there’s something going on in this area, where you can get something to drink or have a bite to eat with friends.”
The campaign to prevent the “McDo”, as it is known in France, from shutting — local Socialist and even Communist Party figures have joined Melenchon — is an unusual development for politicians better known for their opposition to multinational companies.
But it has also served to highlight how the American fast-food chain has become a pillar of the local community, underscoring the lack of other facilities, and economic opportunities, in France’s deeply deprived suburbs.
“There’s only this,” one local, Farida Mameri, told the media as she arrived with her children. “This area without McDonald’s? There’d be nothing. When you meet someone it’s here, there’s nothing else.”
Drugs and poverty
The restaurant is located next to the partly completed L2 trunk road in the tough northern suburb of Saint-Barthelemy, a multiethnic area home to some of the city’s poorest housing estates.
McDonald’s is the second-biggest formal employer in the neighbourhood with its 77 staff, after a local supermarket chain, trade unionists say.
Residents lament how shops and businesses have gradually moved out at the same time as drug-dealing has flourished — providing more lucrative, and dangerous, opportunities for unemployed local men.
Marseille remains an important gateway for drugs arriving in Europe from North Africa, causing deadly turf wars between Kalashnikov-wielding gangs that are a blight on the lives of local families.
In May, amateur video went viral showing several masked men armed with machine guns running through a housing estate in nearby Busserine, where police — and journalists — are often wary to enter.
Since opening in 1992, the McDonald’s has helped to stop some of the criminality, employees and campaigners say.
“McDonald’s kind of got me out of the shit, if you’ll excuse the term,” Nordine Aklil, a 27-year-old employee, told the media. “I had come out of prison and McDonald’s offered me rehabilitation basically.
“It also allowed me to have more stability in my life.”
Salim Grabsi, a member of a working class collective in the area called SQPM, agreed that the business had played a “social role” under its previous managers.
“Young girls and young boys who haven’t got internships, they end up here,” he explained.
“When kids no longer have any interest in school, or they no longer want to go to school, to avoid them landing in drugs and all that, their first job is often at McDonald’s.”
At stake is the threatened closure of the restaurant by its current operator, a franchisor called Jean-Pierre Brochiero who owns the restaurant in a 50-50 joint venture with McDonald’s France.
He claims the site is loss-making — which the branch’s employees contest — and wants to sell it to a Tunisia-based company which would open an “Asian halal” food outlet targeting the local Muslim population.
The employees, who have been protesting for months, believe the takeover plan is a ruse to avoid paying them redundancy compensation and they have gone to court to prevent the transaction.
“As badly paid as they are, as bad as working conditions are at McDonald’s, their whole life is built around this job,” a lawyer representing staff said after a court hearing on Monday.
“The whole life of the neighbourhood is built around this restaurant. McDonald’s needs to be aware of that and they need to come out of this honourably too.”
© Agence France-Presse