France gives critical look at its falling influence
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France is the fast-food chain's best-performing European subsidiary in terms of operating income per outlet and is in the global vanguard of designing restaurants and launching products, the company reported to the Financial Times this year. There are more than 1,200 McDonald's outlets in France, with the country representing 10 percent of all new openings worldwide.
The customers under the golden arches on the Champs Elysees on a recent day were mostly in their 20s and 30s. Many said that they came because they had no time for a traditional, long French lunch and that there were few other choices for a quick bite.
Such reasoning is seen by many French as an erosion of the treasured and time-honored lunch break, yet another source of anxiety for those who feel French culture collapsing under the weight of globalization.
Alexander Felicite, 24, who works in retail marketing for luxury handbags, said he comes because he has little time in a busy day to stop for a long lunch, but he had more than enough time to reflect on the discussion of France's decline.
"I would say it is not that France is in decline; it is that it has stagnated during a rise of globalization," he said. "There is a feeling that all of the action culturally and economically and politically is happening around us, but not within France.
"I don't think the French like that feeling," he said, gobbling his fries and asking, "Is it true you call them 'freedom fries' now?"
The most frustrating aspect appears to be the waning influence of the French language. The French obsess about this and seem offended that the de facto official language in the European Union is clearly English. A European Commission report found that 83 percent of its officials and staff speak English and only 24 percent speak French.
The French have reacted defensively. In May, the National Assembly issued a resolution on preserving the use of French in EU institutions, urging the body to pump millions of dollars into French lessons for officials and staff.
"They seek to protect their language, and a protected language, a museum language, is a dead language," Baverez said.
He said this "defensive approach" in preserving the language reflects a core problem in France, its rigidity and adherence to the status quo.
He added that France is reacting similarly to the ascendancy of American culture and its indomitable spirit of free enterprise -- from the Internet to Wal-Mart.
"France recognizes that it never adapted to the forces of the New World, and so its reaction is to stand in opposition to the embodiment of the new change, which is McDonald's and Starbucks and Hollywood and the dominance of the English language," he said.
In Paris, where the clich image is that of a literary set gathering over Pernod to loathe globalization and its American antecedents, one of the most depressing signs of cultural defeat to many is the presence of Starbucks.
The coffee chain has opened three stores in Paris and has ambitious plans for a dozen or so more.
The grand old cafs full of smoke and heated discussion may have attracted writers like Jean-Paul Sartre and Voltaire, but Starbucks has the Frappuccino and the well-packaged compact disc music that sets the mood in each store with all the precision of a climate-control device.
At the new Paris Starbucks near the Opera metro stop, French people approached for an interview seemed ashamed on some deep level to be there, or at a minimum felt the need to explain themselves.
"This is the first time I have been here," said Sandrine Regard, 36, who was lingering over a grande caf latte on her way to a job interview.
When asked whether she felt France was somehow in decline, she replied: "Absolutely not. I don't accept that."
Others were more reflective.
Julian Husson, 35, said, "We would have to admit we are a long way from the Belle Epoch," the period of high artistic and cultural achievement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. "We feel like we have come to a close.
"France is searching these days, and I think it knows that it can shine and exert itself within Europe," he said. "It doesn't want to look to America. In fact, it wants to look away from America. That way, I think, France believes it will lose that feeling like it is falling."
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.