How McDonald’s Conquered France

The fast-food chain’s most surprising success.

McDonald’s in Paris with the Arc de Triomphe in the background

In his new book, Au Revoir to All That: Food, Wine, and the End of France, Slate wine columnist Mike Steinberger examines the startling decline of French cuisine over the past few decades, explaining how a country that turned eating and drinking into an art form has lost its touch for cheese, wine, food, and fine dining. In yesterday’s excerpt, Steinberger explained how the Michelin guide, which once celebrated the pinnacles of French culinary achievement, became a “millstone” around the necks of the nation’s chefs. Today’s excerpt, the second of two, explains how McDonald’s conquered France—its second-biggest market in the world.

On a bright, mild Sunday afternoon in March 2007, at a convention center in Paris, the annual Salon International de l’Agriculture was winding down. The Salon was a week-long trade show that literally brought the farm to the city. Hundreds of farmers and truckloads of farm animals came to Paris to give urbanites a taste of la France Profonde. It was an opportunity for city kids to pet horses, chase chickens, and be flabbergasted by the amount of waste matter that poured out of cows. It was also an occasion to showcase the meats, cheeses, and wines that made the French countryside such a cherished source of sustenance. No less than that, the event was a way for Parisians to express their support of French agriculture—in a sense, to reaffirm their own Frenchness. The patriotic overtones were catnip for politicians: President Jacques Chirac had kicked off the Salon the previous Sunday, and the floor traffic throughout the week included a steady flow of ministers and members of parliament.

Encouraged by the nice weather, an enormous crowd had turned out for the Salon’s closing day. Most of the visitors were families with young children. They formed a striking portrait of the new, multicultural France: Many of them were white, but many others were of African, Caribbean, and Middle Eastern descent. Hijabs were nearly as ubiquitous as baseball caps and sneakers. By now, a full week into this jamboree, animal droppings and strands of hay were everywhere and the place reeked of the barnyard; judging by your nose and the bottom of your shoes, you really might have thought you were down on the farm—that is, until the big, splashy McDonald’s exhibit, located toward the back of the livestock hall, came into view. What the hell was that doing here, and why was it crawling with people?

As I moved closer, I discovered that no food was being sold; instead, McDonald’s was feeding its guests corporate propaganda. Large, colorful placards ringed the display, documenting the amount of French beef, poultry, and vegetables that McDonald’s used, detailing the nutritional value of the food it served, and describing the company’s eco-friendly practices. The words were accompanied by lots of pastoral imagery—cows, potatoes, sheaves of wheat. Children weren’t spared the charm offensive. At an activity table, a sign reading D’où vient ton McDo? (Where does your McDonald’s come from?) was adorned with more pictures of chickens and cows. Judging by the display, you would never have guessed that it belonged to an American fast-food chain. That, apparently, was the idea. Cooked down to its essence, the message from McDonald’s was that its food was French, it was good for you, and it was good for the environment. I wasn’t buying it, but the intended audience clearly was. Didn’t these kids realize that McDonald’s was the Trojan horse of mondialisation and that they were committing cultural treason? Why weren’t their parents stopping them?

In the battle for France, Jose Bové, the protester who vandalized a McDonald’s in 1999 and was then running for president, proved to be no match for Le Big Mac. The first round of the presidential election was held on April 22, and Bové finished an embarrassing tenth, garnering barely 1 percent of the total vote. By then, McDonald’s had eleven hundred restaurants in France, three hundred more than it had had when Bové gave new meaning to the term “drive-through.” The company was pulling in over a million people per day in France, and annual turnover was growing at twice the rate it was in the United States. Arresting as those numbers were, there was an even more astonishing data point: By 2007, France had become the second-most profitable market in the world for McDonald’s, surpassed only by the land that gave the world fast food. Against McDonald’s, Bové had lost in a landslide.

As reprehensible as Bové’s tactics were, it was difficult for a food-loving Francophile not to feel a little solidarity with him. If you believed that McDonald’s was a blight on the American landscape, seeing it on French soil was like finding a peep show at the Vatican, and in a contest between Roquefort and Chicken McNuggets, I knew which side I was on. But implicit in this attitude was a belief that McDonald’s had somehow been foisted on the French; that slick American marketing had lured them away from the bistro and into the arms of Ronald McDonald. However, that just wasn’t true. The French came to McDonald’s and la malbouffe (or fast-food) willingly, and in vast and steadily rising numbers. Indeed, the quarter-pounded conquest of France was not the result of some fiendish American plot to subvert French food culture. It was an inside job, and not merely in the sense that the French public was lovin’ it—the architects of McDonald’s strategy in France were French.

The principal architect (or culprit, depending on your point of view) was Denis Hennequin, a forty-nine-year-old Parisian. He had joined McDonald’s in 1984, straight out of law school. At the time, McDonald’s was relaunching itself in France; an effort in the 1970s to establish a presence there had failed because of the company’s dissatisfaction with its French franchisee. After stints as an assistant store manager, a training and recruiting consultant, and the Paris regional director, Hennequin was named president and managing director of McDonald’s France in 1996. In the eight years that followed, he steered the company through the Bové controversy and into a period of robust growth and expansion. It was a job so well done that in 2004, Hennequin was promoted to executive vice president of McDonald’s Europe, and just a year later he was put in charge of European operations, overseeing more than six thousand restaurants in forty countries and a quarter-million employees. Having done the seemingly impossible and made McDonald’s safe for France, he was now thought to be in line to take over the entire Chicago-based company. A Frenchman running McDonald’s—it would be a hard thought to swallow on either side of the Atlantic.

Within the organization, it was widely agreed that Hennequin had exhibited audacious leadership in France, notably in his handling of the Bové crisis. Rather than doing the prudent, corporate-minded thing and seeking some form of conciliation with Bové, Hennequin had decided to meet provocation with provocation. In 2001, McDonald’s France had launched a promotional campaign using Astérix, the beloved French cartoon character whose thick handlebar mustache was the inspiration for Bové’s facial broom. That same year, Hennequin rolled another, bigger grenade under Bové’s tractor by opening the McDonald’s booth at the Salon de l’Agriculture. There was deep anxiety among Hennequin’s colleagues about the reception that awaited them there. “Everyone said, ‘They are going to kill us,’ ” recalled Eric Gravier, a vice president of McDonald’s France and a longtime employee. The fears were so great, he said, that they had all their posters made in triplicate because they expected the booth to be pelted with dung. But Hennequin wouldn’t be deterred: McDonald’s France was sourcing 75 percent of its ingredients domestically, and he felt it was imperative from a PR standpoint to force French farmers, hypocritically applauding Bové, to publicly acknowledge the large volume of business that they were doing with McDo. While the gambit was undeniably bold, Hennequin understood that he was operating from a position of strength, and not only in regard to the farmers. The French public applauded Bové, too, but in the places that mattered most, the stomach and the wallet, it applauded McDonald’s more.

The wallet was no minor consideration. McDonald’s appealed to budget-conscious students, of course, but with France’s high unemployment and sluggish economy, it attracted people of all ages. Pensioners, for instance, were among the chain’s most loyal clients. The food at McDonald’s was cheap, and it was made cheaper still because its restaurants were officially designated as takeout joints. The value-added tax on meals at such establishments was just 5.5 percent, versus the 19.6 percent levied at “gastronomic” restaurants. This gave McDonald’s an even greater competitive advantage over brasseries, bistros, and cafés. It was odd that French politicians, supposedly committed to keeping globalization at bay and defending France’s culinary patrimony, would extend such favorable tax treatment to an American hamburger chain, and the different rates were a source of endless consternation to chefs, restaurant owners, and other purveyors of French cuisine. As André Daguin, a retired two-star chef and now the head of the French Hotel and Restaurant Association, put it, “Either our government wants us to be the country with the best restaurants, or it doesn’t.”

What especially cheesed off Daguin and other chefs was that McDonald’s was being taxed as a carryout establishment even though the overwhelming majority of its customers actually chose to dine chez McDo. French diners tended to treat McDonald’s as if it were no different than the bistro around the corner: They came, they ate, and they lingered. As Gravier artfully put it, “The French population uses McDonald’s in a very French way; it is fast food, but not that fast.” The data the company collected bore this out. Americans visited McDonald’s more often than the French, at all hours of the day, frequently alone, and opted for takeout 70 percent of the time. The French spent more money per visit, came in groups more often than Americans, and did 70 percent of their eating during regular lunch and dinner hours. “We have a food culture in France; eating is not a feeding moment, it is a social moment,” Gravier said.

And the company was very adept at catering to French proclivities, a point brought home to me on a visit to a McDonald’s on the Champs-Élysées in June 2007. I was part of a group of journalists being given a guided tour by Jean-Pierre Petit, who had succeeded Hennequin as the chief executive of McDonald’s France. We had come to this particular McDonald’s because Petit wanted to show us the newest addition to the company’s product line in France: McCafé, a stand-alone espresso bar offering lattes, macchiatos, and the like, along with fruit tarts, macarons, and other classic French sweets. The company was planning to open McCafés all over France, and the Champs-Élysées location was home to one of the first. Some of the other journalists eagerly ordered espresso drinks and pastries, but I wouldn’t be so easily gulled—this was still McDonald’s. Petit began making the rounds with a plate of macarons and insisted I try one. I took a pistachio. Not bad, I thought, but no Ladurée. As if reading my mind, Petit immediately chimed in, “We get the macarons from Holder, the company that owns Ladurée.” Touché.