World

‘This is a food bank now’: Workers seized a McDonald’s in France

The McDonald’s restaurant in the 14th district of the southern French city of Marseille has been closed for more than a year, yet it has rarely been busier.

Sandra Mehl for The Washington Post

On a recent Sunday, workers hurried through the kitchen corridors, passing storage rooms with raw meat hanging from the ceiling and stacked potato boxes lining the walls. Above the counter, illuminated panels featured the McDonald’s menu.

But no one behind the counter was wearing the company’s uniforms. The grills and deep fryers were shrouded. The menu was out of date.

Sandra Mehl for The Washington Post

Outside, a car screeched to a halt near the drive-through window, where the screens that once welcomed customers were blank.

“I’m sorry, this is no longer a McDonald’s,” a volunteer told the driver. He pointed at the McDonald’s logo on the wall, which had been rearranged to read “l’après M,” or “the After M.”

“This is a food bank now,” he said.

Sandra Mehl for The Washington Post

Volunteers debrief after a food distribution drive.

Sandra Mehl for The Washington Post

Sandra Mehl for The Washington Post

Sandra Mehl for The Washington Post

Sandra Mehl for The Washington Post

In December 2019, the McDonald’s was on the verge of shuttering when its employees took the keys and occupied it. Months later, as the coronavirus overwhelmed Europe, the building became the unlikely hub of an impromptu aid-distribution effort.

Still illegally occupied, it has become a symbol of the social and economic rifts that the pandemic has deepened in France.

Sandra Mehl for The Washington Post

The impact of the crisis has been particularly visible in Marseille’s most vulnerable districts, including the 14th, where the poverty rate already topped 40 percent before the virus hit.

The lines of people waiting for food in front of the Après M may serve as a warning of how long the path to economic recovery could be in Marseille and other cities. But many also see a glimmer of hope in the transformed restaurant.

Sandra Mehl for The Washington Post

Rather than condemning the occupiers, city officials have embraced the volunteers as role models.

In a surprise move this month, the left-wing leadership of Marseille announced its intent to buy the building, effectively legalizing the food bank and preventing its closure by police.

Sandra Mehl for The Washington Post

Volunteers sort through donations.

Sandra Mehl for The Washington Post

Sandra Mehl for The Washington Post

Sandra Mehl for The Washington Post

The move by the city isn’t meant to “push people to pursue illegal occupations,” said Laurent Lhardit, deputy mayor for the economy. Rather, he said, it could spur others to launch their own initiatives.

Lhardit said Marseille’s poorest residents had faced deteriorating access to public service for decades. Many believe they can do little to change their situation. “That is catastrophic for a city like Marseille. It is catastrophic for these people,” he said.

Sandra Mehl for The Washington Post

“What’s extremely important for us about this project is that those are people who were born in the area,” he said.

“It’s really a major symbolic move,” said William Kornblum, an emeritus professor of sociology at the City University of New York who has done research in Marseille.

Sandra Mehl for The Washington Post

Sandra Mehl for The Washington Post

Sandra Mehl for The Washington Post

Sandra Mehl for The Washington Post

On a recent Monday, hundreds of people lined up outside Après M for the food bags being handed out by the volunteers.

One of the helpers, Ouarda Gattouchi, said part of the team’s mission was to share positivity with those who showed up. “They come without a smile, but they leave with one,” she said.

Sandra Mehl for The Washington Post

Many recognize the relief is fleeting. A woman picking up a bag who gave only her first name, Fatima, over concerns about publicity said the pandemic had exacerbated the already dire situation in the neighborhood.

“One thinks that in France, we’re winning,” she said. “But we’re in misery.”

Sandra Mehl for The Washington Post

Sandra Mehl for The Washington Post

Sandra Mehl for The Washington Post

Sandra Mehl for The Washington Post

Sandra Mehl for The Washington Post

France may not seem a natural fit for McDonald’s; in fact, the fast-food giant’s arrival in the country sparked at times violent protests. But its restaurants have since become part of the social fabric.

When the 14th district’s branch opened in 1992, the local paper celebrated a “staff 100 percent composed of young people from the neighborhood.”

Sandra Mehl for The Washington Post

Soon, the restaurant became the district’s de facto social center — and a safe space, only a few streets away from the drug violence that has shaped France’s perception of this part of Marseille. It provided a sense of community in a fractured neighborhood.

“Many of the people who go to work at McDonald’s are going to work for a wage for the first time in their lives,” said Kornblum, the sociology professor.

Sandra Mehl for The Washington Post

Sandra Mehl for The Washington Post

Cooking equipment, which is still owned by the fast food chain, stands unused.

Sandra Mehl for The Washington Post

Sandra Mehl for The Washington Post

Among the early employees was Kamel Guémari, 39, who started working in the restaurant when he was 16 and a school dropout. He says it gave him a shot at life.

Later on, it was Guémari who extended the same opportunity to others, be it school dropouts or convicts.

Sandra Mehl for The Washington Post

When the local McDonald’s franchise owner announced plans in 2018 to sell the premises, the employees suspected an effort to silence the restaurant’s vocal union members.

The franchise owner rejected such claims, saying the restaurant was being sold because it was losing money. (McDonald’s France declined to comment on the dispute.)

Sandra Mehl for The Washington Post

After the restaurant sold its last Happy Meal in late 2019, Guémari and other employees occupied the building.

Months later came its unlikely rebirth as a food bank catering to people battling a pandemic.

“For two or three months, I slept alone, to not contaminate my family,” said Guémari, whose activism has drawn praise in the neighborhood, but has at times also prompted criticism.

He was handed a suspended sentence last year after a physical altercation with the manager of a nearby McDonald’s franchise.

Sandra Mehl for The Washington Post

Today, the Après M also hosts events and workshops conducted by nongovernment organizations.

Sandra Mehl for The Washington Post

Sandra Mehl for The Washington Post

Sandra Mehl for The Washington Post

The city of Marseille says it will work with the occupiers to find a long-term use for the building. Among the ideas being considered is a restaurant that would offer affordable, healthy meals. The organizers are still also doing their own fundraising so as to be less dependent on the city’s political currents. Marseille is in a part of France where the far-right came out on top in a first round of regional elections last Sunday.

“We thank the mayor’s office,” Guémari said. “But we don’t want to become collateral political damage in the future.”

Sandra Mehl for The Washington Post

Sitting at a table in the restaurant, Gattouchi, the volunteer, imagined a future for the restaurant as a local job-training hub.

For too long, city officials have overlooked the district’s talents, she said.

“The potential these young people have is incredible,” she said. “We’re not going to abandon them.”

Sandra Mehl for The Washington Post

Sandra Mehl for The Washington Post