40 years of Le Big Mac: Here’s how big France’s appetite for McDonald’s has grown

It's 40 years since the US burger giant McDonald's sold its first French fries in France. Here's a look at how the French fell in love with the Big Mac although the relationship has had its ups and downs over the years.

40 years of Le Big Mac: Here's how big France's appetite for McDonald's has grown
A McManure please. Farmers protest at a McDonald's in France in 199. Photo: AFP

The French may have invented nouvelle cuisine, but it seems the dish they love more than any other is served in a square cardboard box on a plastic tray.

The first French McDonald's restaurant – or McDo as they like to call it – opened 40 years ago on September 17th 1979 in Strasbourg and 40 years on the French cannot get enough of their French fries (though, in France, they are just called fries).

To see how much the French love McDonald's you just have to look at some of the stats:

  • 1.8 million – this is the amount of McDonald meals served up in France every day. That's almost two million meals every single day. 
  • 13 percent – this is the share of the restaurant market in France – the home of fine dining – that McDonald's has.
  • 1,464 – this is the number of McDonald restaurants currently in France, that's more than any other chain. The company aims to expand this by 300 – 400 in the next ten years. 
  • 74,000 – this is the number of people employed either full-time or part-time by the company in France. 62 percent of the team are less than 25 years old. 
  • 2nd – France is the second biggest market for McDonald's per head of population after the United States. 
  • 1st – the biggest McDonald's restaurant in the world is located in Disneyland Paris. 
  • €9 – is the average price of a meal in French McDonald's, making it the most expensive in the world. 

The French clearly have something of a love affair with McDonald's and it is reciprocated. When the company opened in France it was on the grounds that only French ingredients would be used, which is not the same in every country where McDonald's operates.

READ ALSO: Why do the French love McDonald's so much?

The menu has also been Frenchified.

Here they have at times sold the McBaguette with cheese and it isn't one of those plastic cheese slices, not on your life. In France, they use Camembert. You can also buy beer in French McDonald's, just in case you need a little kick with your breakfast McMuffin. 

In France there have been times when residents have protested against McDonald's closing or even demanded a new one open in their town.

Employees fighting to keep their McDonald's open in a suburb of Marseille said their restaurant had become the heart of the community, offering internships and jobs to people while providing a safe space for birthdays or meeting friend.

In a community in northern France a Facebook campaign garnered support among thousands and led to a street protest demanding a McDonald's open up in the area.


However, for as much as the French love McDonald's, they also love to hate McDonald's. The relationship has had its bumpy moments.

For decades, McDonald's was the brand French people loved to hate.

From the 1970s it was accused of being the exporter of “mal bouffe” (“bad food”) to the land of fine dining, blamed for introducing millions of French people to high-calorie American fast-food.

It was also resisted as a symbol of US economic and cultural imperialism, particularly by leftwingers, in a country that remains suspicious of globalisation — and more eager than most to defend its own language and culture.

French farmer and one-time presidential candidate Jose Bove built a political career through his opposition to McDonald's which saw him trash a restaurant in the south of France in 1999.

French farmers raided the building site of the McDonald's in Aveyron and demolished it. They had announced their intentions in advance and invited spectators along, offering a Roquefort-tasting at the same time. It was in protest at the Americafication of France

“Roquefort d'abord McDo go home” (Roquefort first, McDo go home) read a slogan daubed on the trashed McDonald's. 

Support for the farmers grew and led to more protests at McDonald's across the country, including some where manure was deposited on the restaurants tills and floor.

The protest outside a McDonald's in Toulouse in 199 saw people turn up with traditional French dishes in protest at the American fastfood giant.

And resistance to the golden arches continues: a mayor on the island of Oleron in western France has famously battled to keep the company out, and the brand is still a favourite target of anti-capitalist protesters during street demonstrations.

And there have also been clashes between McDonald's and the French state at a high level.

In 2016, the French taxman sent a bill for €300 million in unpaid taxes to McDonald's France. The profits were said to have been siphoned through Switzerland and Luxembourg. 

The fast-food restaurant also caused veritable outrage with some French food purists when it had the temerity to add potatoes to its Salade Nicoise in its Italian restaurants. Was nothing sacred any more? 

But despite the run-ins the French still queue up in droves for their burgers and even with the arrival of new rivals in the battle of the burgers like Burger King and Five Guys, McDo still reigns supreme.





Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


French island loses battle to stay McDonald’s-free

A French tourist island has lost its battle to stop McDonald's setting up shop on it shores after a court ruled that it must grant the American fast food giant a building permit.

French island loses battle to stay McDonald's-free
Oléron launched a 'Sustainable Food Zone' as art of its battle to keep McDonald's out. Photo: AFP

An appeal court in Bordeaux has ordered the town of Dolus-d'Oléron, on the highly popular Atlantic island of Oléron, to let the fast food chain start building a restaurant there.

The town mayor Grégory Gendre, who for years has led efforts to block McDonald’s on the grounds that it does not fit with Oléron’s low-key, eco-friendly ambiance, said he would consider another appeal but that this was unlikely.

His town has paid a hefty price in its battle against the burger chain.

A lower court in Poitiers a year ago ordered it to grant the building permit and if it failed to do so to pay 300 euros every day that it was withheld.

The Bordeaux court upheld that judgement, which means that Dolus-d'Oléron now has a total of 105,000 euros to pay, with 300 more euros clocking up for every extra day until it issues the building permit.



Earlier this year mayor Gendre launched a sustainable food zone, provocatively named “McDolus”, as part of his battle to keep the island McDonald’s-free.

Gendre, along with 200 volunteers, transformed an old farm into a food zone dubbed “McDolus”, which combines the name of the fast-food giant with that of the town.

Among the fare on offer was a version of a 'big mac meal' that included organic oysters, eel with parsley, and local wines.

But not everyone in Dolus was happy about the island ban on fast food.

Back in January 2015 people took to the streets in protest, claiming their right to tuck into “un hamburger et frites”.

This love-hate relationship with “McDo” and fast food is very much a French phenomenon.

There have been campaigns against McDonald's “aggressive marketing” in Paris and elsewhere, but there have also been calls for McDonald's to open, or to stay open, in fast-food hungry towns, and the French are known to have developed an appetite for the US's calorie-heavy grub.

In fact, a March 2018 study found that “le hamburger” is now the most popular snack in France, appearing on 85 percent of French menus.

The McDonald's turnover figure in France in 2017 was a staggering €4.85 billion.
To put that in context the turnover of the next biggest restaurant group in the industry – the Bertrand Group which owns Burger King, Au Bureau, Quick and Hippopotamus – was a measly €1.7 billion in 2017. 
And McDonald's turnover rose 4.1 percent on the previous year showing the French love for McDo is only deepening.

Why do the French love McDonald's so much?