How economics are driving fast food’s takeover of France


A screenshot of McDonald's French sandwich menu, which helped the company earn $5.6 billion in sales in 2011. (Mcdonalds.fr)

More than half of all French restaurant sales now take place, sacrilegiously, at fast food chains, according to a new survey by food consultancy firm Gira Conseil.

This is the first time fast food sales have surpassed sit-down restaurant sales in France —  you know, the the country that gave us cafes, bistros and the Michelin star. It also makes France the world’s second-biggest consumer of fast food, NPR reports, with 1,200 McDonalds franchises alone.

That number is only growing (much, it must be said, like French waistlines): Consumption at casual eateries jumped 14 percent just in the past year, according to the survey, and companies such as Subway and Burger King have launched major expansions in the country.

So why the sudden taste for burgers and frites? NPR’s Amy Guttman suspects it has to do with France’s shrinking lunch breaks, which have fallen from 80 minutes in 1975 to a hurried 22 minutes in 2011.

According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, though, the French workweek has actually gotten shorter since the 1970s, with a particularly dramatic drop-off after 2000, the year France limited workers to 35 hours a week. Now the French work, on average, just over 2002 hours per year, or 38.5 hours per week, which arguably leaves lots of time for a sit-down meal.

Another economic explanation might have more to do with cost, one of the same reasons fast food is so popular in the U.S. Food is not cheap in France. French consumers spend $3,263 per person per year on food, about $1,000 more than in the U.S. French food is on the pricier end of the international spectrum, according to the Department of Agriculture. Given the economic climate since the Euro crisis began, a McBaguette (4.50 euro, drink included) might make more sense to a French consumer than the traditional, multi-course cafe lunch (13 euro, per NPR).

The economic crisis seems to have accelerated pre-existing trends in greater fast food consumption, according a 2011 report on French food and drink spending by Business Monitor International, a market research firm.

“The global economic crisis negatively affected consumer confidence and consumer spending in France,” the report said. “It also exacerbated the trend towards private label products and discount retailing, and had a negative impact on consumption.”

That may be bad news for small French businesses, but it certainly seems to have worked out okay for McDonalds. According to Bloomberg, the chain did $5.6 billion in sales there in 2011.

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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