McDonald's at the Louvre? Critics complain, but the French can't say no

Sacre bleu! It's news that could turn the Mona Lisa's smile to a frown: McDonald's (MCD) says it will open an outlet in the food court in the basement of the Louvre. To understand how Paris, a city that personifies cultural snobbery and culinary elitism, could let Mickey D's flip burgers beneath one of its most hallowed institutions, it helps to know how France, somehow, became McDonald's second-biggest market.

Slate credits the Royale Deluxe -- best known for its cameo role as "Royale with cheese" in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction -- with writer Mike Steinberger arguing that that sandwich is all about the mustard. Steinberger, a wine writer and author of a book about the decline of French food, suggests that McDonald's "conquered France," savvily, by giving the people what they desired: French food. Sort of. It's really McDonald's food -- hamburgers and french fries -- marketed as food sourced in France. But worst of all, he sniffs, is that the French are doing the marketing: "It's an inside job."

McDonald's will be opening in November its restaurant and McCafe in the Carrousel de Louvre, the food court underneath the entrance to the famed temple to European art that houses, among other icons, the Mona Lisa, and the ancient Code of Hammurabi. The opening is timed to coincide with the chain's 30th ongoing anniversary of its first French restaurant, and will be the 1,142nd store in the country.

Art historians are, naturally, miffed -- it's far worse, they say, than the opening of a Starbucks in the same food court. They worry about "unpleasant odors" and call it "the last straw." And they say it's the Louvre president, Henri Loyrette, who didn't lift a finger to stop it (and, in not doing so, encouraged the fast-foodization of France's high art nexus). He "just had to say one word to stop the whiff of French fries from wafting past the Mona Lisa's nose. He chose otherwise," they say.

This isn't the only thing the Louvre's fans have found to peeve them lately; the museum is also licensing its name for a United Arab Emirates museum, the Louvre Abu Dhabi (hilariously giving rise to criticism that the "Louvre is the new Starbucks").

But the opening of McDonald's in the Louvre is only the garnish to McDonald's French movement; the candied lemon peel on the tarte au citron, if you will. It's a story of open doors and full stomachs. According to McDonald's, 450 million French were served last year in the company's restaurants in that country, an increase of 11 percent in a time when many countries' sales were stagnant.

Walt Ricker, vice president of media relations for McDonald's, likes to point out that the restaurant is not in the Louvre but in a food court already home to many fast food outlets. Ricker says that the success of McDonald's in France is because the chain is "thoroughly French." He repeated several times in our brief interview. "It's a great example of a restaurant that, not adopted, but adapted to match up with the French culture," he explains. "Customers view it as a French restaurant."

Steinberger, the wine writer and Francophile who was cheering against the Oakbrook, Ill.-headquartered firm's success, agrees, saying "French diners tended to treat McDonald's as if it were no different than the bistro around the corner: they came, they ate, they lingered." He contrasts Americans with French customers, 70 percent of whom eat their fast food slowly, in the McDonald's restaurant, at regular lunch and dinner hours, with friends and family.

"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," he wrote. In other words: the French eat American fast food better than we do.

Is there nothing in which they can't best us?

Evidently, not. Far earlier than Americans were focusing on the source of the food they eat, the French were being wooed by McDonald's with an emphasis on how the restaurant "sources locally whenever and wherever possible" (like the rest of the world, says Ricker, though I doubt it was such a focus before 2008).

Steinberger writes of the March 2007 Salon International de l'Agriculture in Paris, where McDonald's showcased the chickens, beef and potatoes -- 70 percent of its total ingredients -- bought in France. He goes on to point out a factor of the famous French bureaucracy that works, unusually, in McDonald's favor. Because it is categorized in France as a takeout joint, not a "gastronomic restaurant," its value added tax is only 5.5 percent, versus 19.6 percent at sit-down establishments. That makes it even cheaper for the French than McDonald's is for Americans.

The real truth is that French McDonald's restaurants are better than anywhere else in the world. They serve French food. They are, according to Ricker, "the most innovative market in the world for McDonald's, re-imaging modern contemporary design." Instead of the cafeteria-style beigeness of my own neighborhood McDonald's, where I feel a wave of depression wash over me upon entering the store, these are "inviting, places to linger" with fireplaces, stone motifs, Wi-Fi and other homey amenities.

"Fast food, but not that fast," says Eric Gravier, vice president of McDonald's France.

So this opening of a McDonald's restaurant in the Carrousel de Louvre is near, but not in, the museum, and it is fast food, but slower, and McDonald's, but not at all: a better place, more "connected," says Ricker, more comfortable, more artful. More French.

And while the art historians are shocked, I find myself only wanting to go, see, eat, linger.

Just like a French woman.


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