Left Bank balks at le Big Mac

Hamburger chain threatens to vanquish Picasso's ghost


The Guardian; 22nd June 1996, UK

SURROUNDED by shady chestnut trees that overhang a bread shop and cafe, there is a village air about the Vavin-Brea road junction where the meek of Montparnasse have taken on the might of McDonald's.

Not long ago painters such as Picasso, Soutine and Modigliani used to shop for brushes and paints in the 150-year-old Left Bank building at the junction where the artists' suppliers, Lefevre-Foinet, kept a store that served as a secret wartime warehouse to hide masterpieces from the marauding Germans.

But if Paris city council approves a building permit on Monday, the United States hamburger firm will hang up its giant M over Picasso's ghost, winning partial revenge for a rare planning setback when it was refused the go-ahead for a fast food restaurant under the Eiffel Tower.

The Vavin-Brea building was put on sale by the heirs to the artists' suppliers but no one paid much notice when a buyer promised to turn the ground floor into a bookshop, before abandoning the plan in favour of a villag-style bistro.

The mayor of the 15th arrondissement, Jean-Pierre Lecoq, approved the change, only to find that the restaurant licence had been handed on to McDonald's.

When I heard the news, I immediately alerted the local association which was set up in 1995 to protect the site," he said.

But Montparnasse residents, who recently ensured that the nearby Coupole cafe was renovated in identical pre-war style are determined to do better than Hampstead dwellers, who lost a 10-year battle to resist an invasion led by the white-faced Ronald the clown.

The Left Bank area has much the same literary heritage as the London suburb. Steeped in cultural nostalgia, the Vavin-Brea junction is within a short walk of the Montparnasse cemetery where writers including Jean-Paul Sarte and Simone de Beauvoir are buried.

After an anti-hamburger petition was signed by 16,000 people, about 500 turned up outside the threatened building for a demonstration in which a huge McDonald-yellow banner was strung up to display the slogan: "Save our heritage."

The protest leader, Patrick Moreau, said his followers could not understand why it was necessary to add to McDonald's French empire by an act that amounted to artistic and urban sacrilege. Another organiser, Julia Czergo, alleged that McDonald's had used subterfuge and a front man to sneak under local environmentalists' guard.

Socialist city councillors in Paris have taken up the campaign in readiness for a debate on Monday, but past attempts to stop McDonald's from taking over prime tourist sites on the Champs Elysees and settle on noble squares in Lyon and Toulouse have failed.

Despite a constant outpouring of official, elitist and gourmet contempt for the hamburger, 80 percent of McDonald's customers in France are French. There is nothing here like the British McLibel case, and although there have been many attempts to allege that working practices exploit part-time employees, few rows like the sacking of the Kent girl for eating too many McNuggets have reached the press.

And despite high-level government intervention to protect the purity of the French language, even on the Rive Gauche, a Big Mac will still be called a Big Mac.


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