Le Weekend, 1/26/24: Have the French, Those Chic Gourmands, Fallen for Fast Food? 🇫🇷

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January 26, 2024

Dear Frenchly Readers,

Every few years, someone does a piece (NPR, here; The Guardian, here; Time, here) about how the world’s capital of cuisine is falling for fast food, generically called “McDo,” in France, even if it’s Domino’s pizza. (Or “le fast food,” because let’s face it, this is an American import. Less generously, many French people also call fast food, “malbouffe,” as in “bad grub.”)

A more recent piece in The Connexion shares the news that, post-Pandemic, France is booming with new fast food joints—by 2023, there were 52,500 fast food establishments, up from 44,000 in late 2019. Even small towns in France with barely ten businesses frequently have at least one fast food restaurant. McDonald’s now has 1,515 establishments in France, with brands like Burger King and Quick following close behind.

The rise of “ordering in” food for delivery during the pandemic, and then the post lockdown demand for more of just about everything outside of the home, skyrocketed demand for fast food, in particular, from 18-24-year-olds. This is despite a 2018 report from France’s Health Minister warning that French people are headed towards an obesity problem by 2030, to the tune of over 30 million obese people in a country of roughly 68 million (almost half!).

What’s interesting to me is that France was completely against fast food when it was first introduced in the 1970s—it was hard to convince the French to eat what Americans ate and, also, eat with their hands. But by 1978, McDonald’s had opened a successful franchise in Strasbourg, and the company grew in France from there, adapting Le Menu to French tastes. (More on that story of McDo in France from us, here.) Burger King couldn’t get any traction in the country until 2012, and other fast food restaurants also struggled; McDonald’s is still the most popular fast food chain in France, with various sushi fast food options and “French tacos” also very popular.

These days, at a French McDo, you can order a burger with Emmental cheese on a ciabatta bun, a wrap with chèvre croquettes, a  packet of sweet macarons, and even have a beer. But why stop there? You can get a Domino’s pizza with chèvre and honey; chocolate-dipped madeleines at Starbucks; and a Master Cantal from Burger King (with melted A.O.P. Cantal cheese).

Interestingly, though, fast food is not that cheap in France. In fact, it’s no cheaper than eating at home, or grabbing a baguette sandwich from a local bakery: A fast food meal will run about 9-12€; a baguette sandwich with saucisson and fromage about 4-7€; a plain baguette about 1.5€, with money left for a 3€ wheel of organic camembert. In other words, affordability is not the main driver of fast food sales in France.

There are several factors at play here: trade alliances, globalization, big businesses seeing opportunities in marketing and real estate across the globe, French people not feeling like they have the time to sit down for a two-hour-with-wine lunch every day. There are also changing attitudes about being thin in France and weight in general (as discussed in this piece on body image in France we published last year called French Women DO Get Fat).

What’s interesting, however, despite all the evidence and the worry that French people might turn into the next Fast Food Nation, is that the French don’t see themselves as people who like fast food. For instance, more than 70% of the burgers consumed in France are at a table in a proper restaurant with a glass of wine. Many French people go to a fast food restaurant only once every six months, not every day. Their versions of fast food contain real ingredients which might be considered gourmet in the U.S. Also, another key difference, the French have blocked single use plastics and throw away containers, so their fast food will come on a plate, or in a cup that will then get washed.

But at what cost? This morning, I read in Le Monde about farmers blockading major roads in protest across France. I began to wonder if the real meat of this issue is that big (sometimes foreign) businesses, globalization, and simple world-wide inflation may be affecting the bottom line for the producers of some of the highest quality and purest ingredients in the world.

Farmers in France (and everywhere) are being paid little, while working as hard as they can to feed their country. As one farmer put it, “‘We work 50-hour weeks, sometimes 70. And on the 15th of the month, the kids complain that the fridge is empty.’ With €200,000 in sales, he says, he can’t pay himself: ‘Everything else is going up. Tractors have doubled in price in 10 years.’” Another farmer said, starkly: “I feed you and it’s killing me.”

When does it end? Prices are too high, and big business continues to win. I can’t even believe how much one bag of groceries costs, and how much my kids eat, which are both problems when only one of them should be.

Which is why, my fair Francophiles, when visiting France, we should be making an effort to put our American dollars where it matters: small, local coffee shops, bakeries, and restaurants. By voting with our dollar, we are helping to preserve the France that we, and the French, hope will endure for a long time.

Hey, at least it’s not New York. Amy Sedaris says she’d still rather live there, despite these ridiculous photos, than Paris.

À cuisiner, boire, regarder et lire ce weekend:

Our book reviewer, Debra Spark, is back with a new review of the book, Kids Run the Show. Apparently, this book by Delphine de Vigan is such a page turner you might think you’re binge-watching a new Netflix show.

And Cat Rickman has a piece about Paris Fashion Week. Even if you know nothing about fashion (I don’t), this piece is hilarious and fun and you will love it.

And, who doesn’t want to watch the new documentary creating major buzz about Will Ferrell and his trans friend, Harper Steele, road-tripping across America? If not, we have a round up of French movies you can find on the streaming platforms.

I have been really into white beans in soups lately. With kale and tomato, peppers, parsley, onions; or with chicken broth, black pepper, parm rinds and rosemary. White beans are creamy and filling, and I love them. Now, I want to make this soup from Gwyneth Paltrow that was in Food and Wine. It’s a white bean soup  flavored with slow cooked onions to resemble a French onion soup, with a hefty protein kick. Add kale or spinach and ditch the bread to make this healthy, filling, non-blood-sugar-spiking and iron-rich. Perfect to tuck into while watching a good movie.

I hope you have a cozy, homemade, and locally sourced weekend.

À bientôt,

Caitlin.

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