Ze French are infamous for their exacting demands and romantic way of life: they love to sit in cafes burning hours slowly with a long cigarette over a short coffee, they have an unflinching commitment to displays of amour, and they paved the way for haute-cuisine. In short, most French people simply believe that they ‘do’ life better. This claim of superiority even extends to the most iconic symbol of American food: McDonald’s. But is there any truth to the claim that “McDo” (as it is endearingly called by French speakers) is actually better in France than the United States?
There is a certain irony that there is so much bravado amongst the French youth about how their McDonald’s is superior when on one hot summer day in 1999, a sheep farmer named José Bové destroyed an incoming McDonald’s with a bulldozer to no consequence. On the contrary, he became a national hero and political figure against ‘global capitalism’. But two decades later, there are more McDonald’s in France than ever, and just the other day I overheard a 20-year-old girl bragging to her friends about how she spent the weekend: in a luxury hotel, lounging at the spa pool in a bathrobe, slippers, and eating her “McDo” with great pride and delight.
I texted a bunch of my French friends for their take on McDo, and the general response rang into a similar chorus: It’s really bad in the U.S. It has a specific taste that sometimes you just crave. The products here are just… better.
Setting aside my pride of usually making a point to not eat American fast-food in France, I figured there was only one way to find out: to go to the ‘best’ McDonald’s in Paris, and do a taste-test myself. I located a McDo near Bastille—where the French once stormed during the revolution—and the first thing I noticed was that the signature red backdrop of the Golden Arches logo was replaced by a dark green. This branding change was a result of pressure from European organizations to be more environmentally friendly: used cooking oil was turned into biodiesel fuel, more eco-friendly refrigeration, and organic milk and sustainably grown coffee were added to the menus. Inside, the McDonald’s felt more or less the same.
Prior to my taste-test trip, I did a bit of research on the McDonald’s France website, which touted the quality of certain ingredients: 100% of the eggs are from France and free-range chickens, 55% of the beef is from bovine francaise (and hormones are banned in the EU), and so on. The United State’s McDonald’s website is far more vague, promising ‘farm-fresh eggs’, 100% beef and halal chicken. The statistics provided by the French McDo reassured me, and when I walked into a McDonald’s near Bastille, the shiny plastic decor and greasy smell immediately brought me back to a suburban childhood of weekend Happy Meals.
With sanitized hands, I tapped my order into a screen and got a few items available only in France: Le Croque McDo (a circular take on a croque monsieur, consisting of Emmental cheese and a slice of ham) and Le P’tit Fondu (a hamburger with fried onions and raclette sauce). For good measure, I also ordered a cheeseburger and chicken nuggets. There were no macarons available at the location I was in, to my disappointment, but as I observed the clientele around me I realized that everyone was eating the standard menu classics: burgers, fries, nuggets, and Coca-Cola. The French-ified menu items were likely there more for the interest of tourists than the locals, and the locals I saw were all fairly young and hip, teenagers dressed in ubiquitous streetwear clothing made by global brands like Adidas and Nike. The crowd was diverse, and the only identifiable French thing about them was the language coming out of their mouths. Into their mouths was McDonald’s.
My turn was next: my order arrived, and I dove in with anticipation, since it had been years since I had eaten McDonald’s. Both the Le Croque and Le P’tit Fondu were somewhat disappointing; soft and bland approximations of French refinement. The Emmental cheese tasted real enough, but that alone wasn’t sufficient for me to want to finish the sandwiches. I then bit into the cheeseburger and on the first bite, I was surprised by how the taste emerged as an exact replica as the cheeseburger in the entrails of my memory. The nuggets were the same; a crispy morsel of gratification of meaty substance that delivered a mustard umami kick.
While Proust had his Madeline, American taste buds are attached to a more enduring flavor: that distinct, irreplaceable McDonald’s taste, which is undoubtedly a result of synthetic and calculated industrial formulas. “Sometimes I just crave McDo,” another French friend told me. “I know it’s bad, but it is just so good… for the first few bites, at least. But I always feel horrible afterwards.” I had mixed feelings because the French seem to be right: McDonald’s in France likely is slightly better than the franchises in the United States, and the higher pricing here reflects the higher quality of food used. But as I left and walked past a local boulangerie that had languished in the face of COVID, I felt a bit sad over the domination of McDo. Even though France is doing fast and easy convenience food slightly better than America, it doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily for the best.
Cyrena Lee is a freelance writer, who has had work published in the anthology Writing for Life, Into the Void Magazine, Epiphany Magazine and has published a non-fiction book on lucid dreaming with Sterling Publishing. To see more of her work, visit cyrena-lee.com>