The US and Europe are in the midst of negotiating a historic trade deal that will create the world’s largest consumer market: some 800 million people. Despite promises that the agreement will create thousands of new jobs, there’s fierce resistance to it in Europe, especially when it comes to food.
Many Europeans say they want to preserve a way of life and eating that they say America’s industrial farming and multinational corporations threaten. A smaller version of that battle is being fought in one Paris neighborhood known as “the belly of Paris.”
“Beautiful cherries and melons!” shouts a vendor on Paris’ rue Montorgueil, a street in the heart of “the belly.” For eight centuries, there was a massive food market here that fed the entire city.
Olivier Chavaren, who runs Coloratour, a sightseeing company specializing in food tours, says this neighborhood, where Julia Child once shopped, means something to the French.
“It’s the soul of gastronomy for the French,” says Chavaren. “Remember, for 800 years there was this covered market. It left so many traces in terms of food habits and shops that you see along this street.”
Though the Les Halles fresh food market moved out in the 1960s, residents say its legacy lives on in the small butchers, bakers, fishmongers and restaurants—some more than 200 years old—that line the streets here. And today some locals say their way of life is threatened by an American fast-food giant.
“People living here don’t want McDonald’s. Small business people of the street don’t want McDonald’s. Nobody wants McDonald’s,” says Olivia Hicks, who heads up the neighborhood’s anti-McDonald’s committee.
She says a giant McDonald’s would irreversibly change a street that even holds a place in French literature.
“Stendhal and Balzac used to come here, and they’d talk about the restaurants of this street in their books,” says Hicks. “And once you have McDonald’s, it becomes like every other street in the rest of the world. Whereas for the time being, this street stays very typical and very Parisian.”
Hicks and her committee have been fighting the fast-food chain’s efforts to move into the neighborhood for the last four years. That battle has gone back and forth.
When a neighborhood council voted to keep McDonald’s out last April, a judge overturned the measure.
But this month, the anti-McDonald’s camp won a decisive victory: Paris city officials refused a building permit in an attempt to preserve the area’s traditional identity.
Still, Hicks and other committee members say the war is not over. They believe McDonald’s will appeal this decision. And indeed, in a statement, McDonald’s said it doesn’t comment on active permit applications.
Officials from the Paris chamber of commerce criticized the city’s decision, pointing out that McDonald’s employs 72,000 French people.
In fact, McDonald’s is very popular in France, and there are plenty of McDonald’s around Paris. Some 45 new “Macdos,” as the restaurant is known here, were opened in France last year, and the country is the fast-food behemoth’s second most-profitable market after the US.
So all is not black and white, even on rue Montorgueil. Daniel Rigattier has been selling cheese in his fromage shop here for 40 years. He has more than 250 different cheeses—”but that’s France,” he chuckles.
Rigattier says he has nothing against McDonald’s coming here, and it’s certainly better than another clothing store.
“At least it’s food,” he says. “And a McDonald’s will draw a lot of young people.”
“Besides,” says Rigattier, “it’s not McDonald’s that threatens us cheesemakers; it’s people going on diets.”