Technology with attitude

Is McDonald’s Burning?

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[I wrote this a while ago, but never posted it. It didn’t really seem relevant to anything people were talking about here — why there isn’t even a “George W. Bush” in it! But perhaps now it’s as relevant as it ever will be.]

When my son and I were in Paris in 2003, we took a stroll one rainy, raw afternoon while waiting for a train and ended up having an excellent lunch — roasted ham and greens on toast, smothered in melted goat’s milk cheese — at an Auvergnois bistro near the gare du Nord.

Across the street stood a gutted McDonald’s, its shatter-proof windows all spider-webbed by some massive assault, and the whole thing plastered in posters proclaiming McDonald’s is dead and merde a McDonald’s. Photocopied newspaper articles hung there, too, telling the story. With my miserable French, I was only able to piece together part of the story: some French union activists had focused an attack on this restaurant, and they violently shut it down after a long effort.

I learned more of the story when I got home, from the bitter blog of an American living in France:

The McDonalds franchise located in Paris at Strasbourg St. Denis has been shut down by striking workers for the better part of a year. Now the strikers are occupying the McDonalds and using it as a storefront to sell t-shirts to fund striking French artists and anything that José Bové©®™ is up to at the moment. So here we have the confiscation of private property that has been turned into a squat, and illegal commerce, and nothing is done about it. The globophobe nitwits, ecstatic before so much symbolism, think that there is nothing wrong with this. So while they all whack off to the symbolism of it all here’s another symbol they can rub up against: France is not subject to the rule of law. France is ruled by the law of the jungle.

The sad part is that while the neoleftists are worshipping symbols, McDonalds is taking care of Paris’ poor. Many French retirees and low income workers go to McDonalds to buy a coffee or just a bottle of water because it is so much less expensive and they can drink it sitting down. Paris cafés charge higher prices for drinking anything sitting down. But the limousine leftists, who of course would never be caught dead anywhere near a McDonalds, do not know this. They are too busy chowing down where-the-elite-meet-to-eat in the 8th arrondissement right next to their PR firms.

So the root of it was a labor dispute, but the result was an all-out assault on the physical presence of McDonald’s, and all it embodies in a lower-middle-class Paris neighborhood.

This makes me uncomfortable. Luke and I are down on McDonald’s, the moreso when they’re in other countries. We groaned when we saw one on the Champs-Élysées. I suppose they can be tolerated in airports or soul-less train stations, but otherwise they have no place in Europe. Even in America, we associate them with the waddling malnourished obesity of our neighbors.

Yet without having been in Strasbourg St. Denis when the windows were smashed, I can’t tell whether “anti-McDonald’s” and “anti-American” are clearly distinguished in the minds that sacked the restaurant. From what I’ve seen of French anti-Americanism in several sources, it’s as unthinking and reflexively prejudiced as the worst U.S. knee-jerk patriotism. I’m not convinced these people know the difference between me and Ronald McDonald, or that they care.

A writer named Steven Shapin, reviewing a book that deals with the globalization of food, in “The Guardian” on Dec. 1, 2003, had a perceptive passage about this:

[G]lobalised products such as the Big Mac and Coke have secured their spread across the world by travelling in the special channels carved out by American power, capital and culture. While Big Macs are now everywhere — you can avoid them in Bhutan and Afghanistan, but that’s a high price to pay — it would be impossible to explain their global distribution without attending to those channels and to their identification with the powerful idea of America. Just as Château Lynch-Bages has a Pauillac Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, so the Big Mac is AOC USA. You can’t account for why so many people throughout the world want to eat it — or, indeed, why so many others use it as a reference for globalised abominations — without understanding their ideas about the place called America.

Bearing that in mind (and without taking the comparison to ludicrous excess) How is the rage-intent underlying an attack on McDonald’s, as a symbol of a hated alien culture’s intrusion, different from the hate that defaces a synagogue, say, or a mosque?

I hate the idea that the most visible symbol of my country’s presence in the world is a hamburger clown. But even if America’s home reality is more complex than that, the commercial pop culture is what we’ve managed to project into the world’s eye. An Internet friend from Germany recently sent me a CD of some popular music from over there, including the obligatory song railing against “Amerika.” Poisoning the world’s cultures along with its environment. Lying to everyone. Blah, blah. At once point the humorless singer starts hissing about Mickey Mouse.

Sometimes the overlay of anti-globalism and anti-Americanism is obvious, especially when it involves the fragments of the old Left. This article by Jean-Francois Revel sums it up well.

We French have had little to say against Saddam Hussein, Muammar Qaddafi, Kim Jong Il, Fidel Castro, Robert Mugabe, the imams of the Islamic Republic of Iran, or the bosses of China and Vietnam. We reserve our admonitions and our contempt and our attacks for the U.S., for Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, and for Europeans like Margaret Thatcher, Silvio Berlusconi, and Tony Blair, because they are insufficiently hostile to capitalism. Our enemy is not the dictator but the free market economy.

Anti-globalizers make the same mistake. What’s important to them is not the eradication of poverty. Rather, it is the propaganda value they gain from linking poverty to the spreading market economy. But this puts them on the wrong side of all evidence, of reality, of history.

Now, to bring it somewhat back to L’Intafada, here’s an observation from an American living in Paris.

To understand what is going on in France requires keeping two or more contradictory thoughts in one’s head at the same time. The rioters are not freedom fighters, revolutionaries, or community activists. The chief instigators are the hoodlum elements that have long plagued these poor suburbs, making the lives of their own neighbors insecure and miserable. On the weekends, they plague public transportation, sometimes attacking passengers and otherwise making a nuisance of themselves. On the other hand, there are no hoodlum gangs in the wealthy districts of western Paris. When a young man has no job and no money, being a hoodlum and/or a drug dealer is pretty much all that is left as a vocation. So while the torching of cars, schools, and businesses is unacceptable and inexcusable, it is easily understandable. And from an entirely symbolic point of view, these actions have a certain resonance: In France as in America, the automobile, the rioters’ chief target, is a symbol of freedom, mobility, and independence–something that these young people have never had and may never have. More than 5,000 autos have now been torched, a symbolic statement indeed.