Marseille, from the beloved McDonald’s to social fast food | International

In the old McDonald’s on the northern outskirts of Marseille, you can find the same chairs and tables as in any fast food chain in the rest of the world. The cash registers are still there, as are the neon signs announcing “the new version of the Big Mac that never goes out of fashion”.

But the place is dark and inside there are neither customers nor uniformed employees. The potato fryer and the burger grill are wrapped in clear plastic. Outside, the one-story building is painted in imaginative spots of blue, purple, and pink.

Along with advertisements for special menus that no longer interest anyone since the restaurant closed two years ago, drawings and handwritten texts are now hanging on the walls. “Each generation, without a doubt, believes itself destined to remake the world”, we read. “Mine knows she won’t do it again, but her task may be greater. It is about preventing the world from falling apart. “

The sentence is from the writer Albert Camus and could sum up the pulse which, for three years, has been fighting in this corner of the northern neighborhoods: the northern districts of Marseille plagued by unemployment, discrimination and outbreaks of violence. These are neighborhoods of islets built in the fifties and sixties on the mountainside to accommodate immigration of North African and African origin; blocks now degraded and where drug trafficking thrives.

In the middle is this McDonald’s, now a food bank and soon, if there is no setback, a nonprofit fast food restaurant, a fast food social, as its promoters say. The town hall, in the hands of the left after 25 years of conservative regime, bought the land and premises for around 600,000 euros with the intention of renting them to the future “social and solidarity” establishment.

“Look around you, there are only blocks,” says Kamel Guemari in the parking lot, 40, employed at this McDonald’s since the age of 16. “We bring color, we made a dream come true.”

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The restaurant is a symbol. It is because of France’s attachment to this channel that, despite the qualifier of junk food or the junk food that is usually applied in this country, nowhere in the world is it so profitable except the United States. And because of the difficulties of northern neighborhoods: When in 1992 he moved to this district, the restaurant became an economic lung. It gave work. And something else. In an area with little shopping and crossed by highways and railways, this Mcdonalds, as the French call it, it was the neighborhood agora. From then on, the announcement of its sale, in the spring of 2019, due to losses of a million dollars, fell like a bomb. And that triggered an unusual mobilization. Neighbors fought with unions and left-wing parties to preserve McDonald’s. The paradox is that in 20 years, activists in France have gone from dismantling McDonald’s stores to protest against the junk food and capitalism to demand that McDonald’s not close its doors.

McDonald’s in the Saint Barthélemie district of Marseille, transformed into a social and food distribution center. BRUNO ARBESU

Kamel Guemari was one of the protagonists of the battle. He hit the headlines in the national press when one day he locked himself in the premises and, while recording on the social network Facebook, sprayed himself with gasoline and threatened to blow himself up. He didn’t, but the act made him a small celebrity: an imposing leader because of his appearance – tall and with a “Castro” beard, as left-wing leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon described it. – charismatic, with sometimes abrupt manners. In the summer of 2020, he was sentenced to four months of probation for assaulting the director of another McDonald’s franchise in Marseille. An article in the American economic magazine Forbes describes him as “a mixture of Spartacus, Gandhi and Don Quixote”.

McDonald’s closed in 2019, it was busy and months of labor and legal disputes followed. In the meantime, it had been turned into a food bank. “We were the only restaurant in the world open during the pandemic, 22 hours a day,” said Guemari. “The people here weren’t afraid of dying from covid, they were afraid of starving.”

A new chapter opened this summer, when the new mayor, the socialist Benoît Payan, announced the takeover of McDonald’s by the Town Hall. “Our wish is for this project to be exemplary,” explains Laurent Lhardit, deputy mayor of Marseille and responsible for the economy and employment, over the phone. “In the northern districts, continues Lhardit, the custom of the last decades is that people are helped, supported, subsidized, but at no time are they given the confidence to tell them that they are quite capable of developing a project. and not just live with the help. This is the bet ”. A McDonald’s spokesperson, approached by MRT, said: “McDonald’s France is not commenting on this ongoing transfer plan.”

Today, inside the old McDonald’s, there are no customers, nor the smell of frying, but the activity of the volunteers – a dozen men and women preparing the bags of food , ordering the stores – is incessant. In a few months, if everything goes as planned, it will also be news fast food which will employ dozens of people. They call it After: a play on words which in French means El post-McDonald’s and The afternoon. “We talk about delinquency in the neighborhoods, but a child who sees that his refrigerator is empty and that his parents are desperate, what does he do? said Guemari. “Fighting radicalism or petty crime: this is only done for work. “

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