Fantasia, R. (1995) 'Fast Food in France', in Theory and Society, Vol 24, No 2: 201 - 43.
Consumer goods always have cultural and cognitive dimensions since they are produced by a culture industry. It is interesting to see what happens when goods are exported to foreign countries, hence the interest in the fate of fast food in France. Fast food seems the exact opposite of classic French gastronomy, and it might be possible to predict a limited appeal. The Socialist government established a special body to protect France's cultural heritage, and it is clear that the Minister of Culture, Jack Lang, was very worried about the infiltration of American popular culture . On the other hand, perhaps globalization has led to transcultural and cosmopolitan interweaving with French culture. There has certainly been some interchange, with 'croissanteries' opening in America.
In fact, there has been a considerable expansion of the fast food business in France throughout the 1980s, although still at a level well below America. The French developed their own fast food industry too, such as La Croissanterie. This is not just the influence of Americanisation. French culinary culture was never particularly 'pure' before -- even the café is a 17th century import (205), as is the bistro (220). There have been the usual changes affecting traditional food -- changes in the family, more female work, increased adolescent spending power, work intensification -- and the French food industry boomed especially in the form of increased catering for new groups.
The first McDonald's was opened in Paris in 1972, and rapidly spawned French burger restaurant chains in competition, copying the American ones. Even in 1995 there are more French-owned burger chains than American ones. Fast food techniques were also applied to French foods such as brioche, croissants, baguettes and pastries. These foods are 'fast ' in the sense that they are pre-packaged and cheap, and sold as take-outs in 'vienoisseries'. There have also been changes in the production and marketing of food, again initially imitating American forms. Under the threat of competition from McDonald's, French fast food production underwent a series of mergers and diversifications, into hotel ownership for example, and is now concentrated in large corporate oligopolistic forms. This is a development that contrasts with the myth of the self-made US entrepreneur, with franchising, and with the associated dream of the independent businessman. This myth took on the form of 'an ideological message of individualism, free enterprise and entrepreneurial capitalism' during the Cold War (208). French firms were not franchised and so did not carry this ideological theme.
However, French firms soon realised the commercial benefits of the 'hyper-rationalisation of labour' (210). McDonald's now claim to be able to train a worker in 15 minutes, and they have pioneered a number of deskilling techniques including using computer technology on cash registers and in stock control [(210) -- the nearest we get to a mention of Ritzer]. American practices and their anti-union stance also put some pressure on the French national agreements on catering work. European food production depends on 'unskilled, low paid, female and part-time labour' (211). As with McDonald's, companies such as FRANCE QUICK like to employ students in particular in a 'flexible' way.
Burgers were once a novelty food in France, linked to the French perception of fashionable Americanism, providing 'a taste of the other' (213). Americanism was associated with modernism and the rise of the new bourgeois service class in France. Bourdieu and his work on the diet and its connections with social space is relevant here. French burger restaurants are not particularly patronised by the French proletariat, partly because they have their own works canteens (215). The traditional café was unappealing especially to female professionals. Young adults and adolescents were attracted by this version of Americanism. It is true that burgers are also inexpensive. Early marketing for burgers stressed the slightly rebellious nature of eating at Mac's, appealing to the young affluent rootless intelligentsia. In the spirit of a generational reverse of 1968, the young service class members were apolitical and in favour of US culture and iconography.
There was an initial culture shock for the French. They do not normally queue tidily behind cash registers, and were provided with guides to explain foreign practices such as self-service. These characteristics were particularly liked by French adolescents, though. The restaurants offered an absence of adult constraint, being able to eat with your hands, an informal atmosphere, being loud and colourful, even playful (223). There is no need for polite table manners, in contrast to the dull adult restaurants of their parents. [I am sure this is a major source of appeal for British adolescents and fans of modernization too]. The French still went to their cafes, but these changed as well and became less formal. The human contact offered in cafes and bars was still valued, but the atmosphere in McDonald's restaurants was a major draw, even down to the colourful uniforms of the staff and the large displays -- all signs of efficiency for the French. Going to a Mac was a tourist experience (228), a visit to the USA as the French perceived it, not to a deliberate simulation of America.
These factors explain the concentration of McDonald's in Paris and later in large urban areas rather than suburban ones. The company acquired expensive historic inner city sites initially, to emphasise their cosmopolitanism [there was a very nice one with fake art nouveau near L'Opera, and one in a prime site in the Place de la Republique]. When they did expand and took on their usual suburban form, they appeared to the French as amusement parks rather than restaurants, a 'pleasure zone' [a site of leisure] (228). Thus the appeal of McDonald's is more to do with the appeal of American culture rather than the food. This appeal was embedded and expressed in marketing practices and organization. The cultural dimension dominates. McDonald's varies its marketing in different countries -- in Germany, the burger was seen as a radically new invention, even though it originated in Hamburg; in Japan, there was an active policy to change the taste of the Japanese for beef ( not just to adjust to local customs) [not mentioned by Traphagen and Brown].
French food conglomerates happily combine fast food outlets with gourmet restaurants, and have cheerfully borrowed American production techniques. As a result, there are contradictions in the resistance directed at American food in some quarters. There still are some conflicts, for example over a proposal to cite a McDonald's in the Champs-Elysees [and in 2000 a French farmer became a global hero by demolishing a Mac restaurant with his tractor], but in general an 'informal accord' operates (232). The opposition of the French government was an opposition to American food rather than American values, but that government had already embraced a turn to market values anyway. There were some conservative critics too. However, we need Gramsci's work to realise that American capitalism is only an extension of European capitalism in the first place, and that Fordist production methods cannot be confined to the economy, but affect ways of life as well [so it is nonsense to copy the economic methods, but try to resist the effects on the ways of life]. Economic changes bring about each cultural ones such as standardization, for example, as the rationalisation of croissant production shows.[Try Ram for a slightly different take on this]
Of course, mass-production does have a democratic aspect in offering wider access, but this is 'formulaic' (234) [in other words, you get access, but to commodified versions of the real thing]. Further, these democratic aspects bring American-style administration. Finally, there is no real participation in Americanism, except as customers, no local modifications. Eating at McDonald's encourages infantilism. The Americanism on offer is decontextualised socially and culturally (235) [that is, stripped of its aura, commodified].
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