When a picture of France flashes across your mind, what do you think of? Is it le Tour Eiffel, or maybe, beret-wearing, cigarette-smoking hommes (men), or how about Gene Kelly singing and dancing in the rain? Or is it les baguette-toting, fromage-eating, vin-drinking Françaises. I would bet that it is not McDonald’s. No, not in this land of haute-cuisine and gourmet cafés. Even though, McDo, as it is called here, does not have as huge a presence as it does in the United States, it is still an American icon that is much revered, especially by the youth of France. McDonald’s has been operating in France since 1972, opening in Créteil, and then in Strasborg in 1979, and now has 1,134 franchised restaurants nationally. They claim that over one million French consumers eat in a McDonald’s per day and 450 million customers annually.
Before the Internet was available in our apartment, we needed to find Wi-Fi (pronounced wee-fee in French) access in order to keep our blog readers abreast of our adventures. I found places that I could get free Wi-Fi, but I often had to ask for connection information to hook up, which often consisted of close to 25 letter and number combinations or I would have limited time to use the network. When I discovered free unlimited access at a McDonald’s within a two-minute walk of our apartment and for which I needn’t ask anyone for a password, I was ecstatic.
We hadn’t frequented McDonald’s in America much in recent years except for when we would be traveling by car and needed coffee to keep us awake on a long drive. Watching our figures and turning mostly vegetarian made “dining” out at McDonald’s not the best option when we thought of fast-food options. Therefore, initially when we hunted for internet access, McDo’s wasn’t the first place to spring to mind, but in the end, that’s where we ended up.
My initial excuse for going to the golden arches was to link to the Internet to check email and write my blog, but as I spent time there at various times of the day, my innocent voyeurism surfaced—I enjoy people watching. I observed that at the various times that I was there, whether in the morning or afternoon, and this is in no way scientific, most of the diners were groups of young folks, say 16- to 25-year-olds. There were the occasional dads with the little kids and their Happy Meals, but rarely did I see older folks, or dare I say, even those “my age,” chowing down.
The local McDo was recently rebuilt in the past few years, and it has had green features incorporated into it. They used sustainable woods, and they recycle the oils that are used for the cooking and built in energy-efficient features. I would ensconce myself with one of the best café lattes I’ve ever had in the top floor dining area in handy proximity to the gender-neutral restroom. Boy, did I get a surprise one day when I emerged and found a guy in the bathroom with me!
There is also a drive-through that accounts for about 45% of the business and sports the sign, the McDrive. The most novel thing is the inside kiosk that allows you to passer votre commande (place your order), sidestepping those waiting on line, to pay by CB–carte bancaire (debit card) and then to step up with your receipt to an express window to pick up your order. I’ve read that these are primarily used in France, but you may have seen them in the United States in trial markets.
As for the menu, the culture in France doesn’t support the selections that would be available in America. Breakfast is called le petit déjeuner for a reason. Big breakfasts are not common here; many of our friends don’t eat breakfast at all or only a croissant or pain au chocolat and coffee. Not all McDonald’s are open for breakfast, and the breakfast selections are slim. The local McDonald’s Grenoble L’Aigle only opens at 10 am, but it closes at 1 am. The bulk of McDonald’s business is at lunchtime. The offerings are similar to those I’ve seen advertised on television, with a twist. The Croque McDo is a takeoff of the French Croque Monsieur (think grilled cheese with ham) and les frites are not called french fries! The kids here love the Happy Meal as much as children elsewhere. The website window showing the Happy Meal choices comes with an interesting side note (roughly translated): over 60% of the Happy Meal menus provided do not exceed the energy needs of a child less than six years for a meal. I’m thinking that that refers to the Apports Nutritionnels Conseillés, the French equivalent of the U.S. RDA (Recommended Daily Allowance) and that here energy equals calories. This seems interesting in light of the recent obesity-related lawsuits against McDonald’s that have come along in the past years.
Not only do the French McDonald’s have a different menu, you can also get a beer to go with that Big Mac. France is not known for its beer, and what is served, 1664, is not considered to be the crème de la crème (the best), but hey, this is McDonald’s not a true French restaurant!
The company also touts their philanthropic largesse with the opening of the 150th Ronald McDonald House in Paris in 1991 and is proud that in 1968, they airlifted hamburgers into the U.S. Olympic team athletes competing in Grenoble who craved a taste of home. Last summer, a French-made McDonald’s commercial aired that would never be seen in America because of what Don Thompson, the number two executive at McDonald’s, called cultural norms. The ad entitled, Venez comme vous êtes or Come as You Are launched much global controversy as it is an ad campaign intended to “recognize the diversity of McDonald’s customers in France.”
Daily we see and are unperturbed by signs of the different cultural norms of France, but stealing a McDonald’s slogan about our time in France, “We’re loving it!”