By David Ellwood
In January 2013 the Daily Telegraph ran a story on the refusal of the inhabitants of the famed old neighbourhood of Montmartre, in Paris, to accept the arrival in their midst for the first time of a Starbucks coffee shop. The Paris Pride heritage association denounced this “attack on the place’s soul.” A resident said “we must do everything to stop this disfiguring, as it opens the door to any old rubbish.” Twenty years previously, said local sources, McDonald’s had tried to open, but they had been forced out. Now the invader was back, just with a different disguise.
What is it about these world-wide American food and drink experiences which can still set off such resistance in local communities wherever they choose to land? Of course this is by no means a universal reaction, in time or place, otherwise there would not be 1,700 Starbucks shops across Europe (including Russia), or 7,300 McDonald’s restaurants, with more coming even in the crisis. But the multi-faceted power of these companies, and their apparently unstoppable will to expansion, has provoked a variety of antagonisms over the years. Starbucks’ historian, Bryant Simon, talks of ‘pushback’. More serious is the ‘brand backlash’ that a New York Times correspondent saw in the targeting of McDonald’s around the world at the time of the Iraq war.
Most of the negative impulses have been temporary, not least because the chains have responded to the irritations they can produce: adapting menus, advertising, and their restaurants to local tastes. And by no means all the reactions have been destructive: ‘pushback’ can produce interesting alternatives to the enemy. But in a world where tensions between the ‘global’ and the ‘local’ are never far away, these American names remind us that only the US possesses truly universal food brands, with Coke still the world’s most powerful trademark of all, according to the agencies which rank such things. So, whatever it might wish, the high profile of McDonald’s, its unrivalled resources and symbolic associations, have tended to get the company caught up in the politics of change in all those cultures where conflicts of modernization have been particularly intense.
In his pioneering work on America’s role in debates over the future in 20th century France (Seducing the French 1993), Richard Kuisel focuses at one point on the controversy Coca-Cola set off when it arrived in the country in 1949. The Left was against it, the wine-producers deplored it, the government and the press opposed it. The Cold War was raging and Coke openly waved the US flag. But Kuisel writes that at stake were issues of modernity, sovereignty, and identity which have endured long after the Cold War, and are still felt well beyond France. “Our problem is to find a formula of life as between the old traditions and the new world rushing into us from every side,” said the Irish writer Sean O’Faolain in 1940. In the second half of the 20th century, repeated waves of technological, social, and cultural novelties coming from across the Atlantic, usually driven by market forces, have meant that the shock of the future usually arrived with an unmistakeable American accent. Was this an ‘Irresistible Empire’ as Victoria De Grazia suggested in her 2005 survey of the impact and reception of American models of consumerism in 20th century western Europe?
In the post-Cold War era of globalization, identity politics took off in Europe and in many places across the globe. As the renowned political scientist Stanley Hoffmann of Harvard put it, the more societies converged in their (Western-style) systems of living, the more each tried to cling to its native idiosyncracies. And in many lands, food became one of the key areas of contention in this struggle. The Minister of Agriculture in Italy’s Berlusconi government of 2009, from the separatist Northern League party, declared that he would not eat pineapple, let alone hamburgers, and encouraged the elimination of kebab stores and other alien food presences from his territory. (Meanwhile the Minister of Culture in the same government hired the founder of McDonald’s in Italy as his commercial adviser.)
But Italy showed that the politics of food could be much more constructive and intelligent than these gestures suggested. In 1989 the International Slow Food campaign was founded, inspired by journalist Carlo Petrini. He had originally gained fame in a protest against the arrival of McDonald’s close by Rome’s ancient Spanish Steps. Today Petrini’s movement comprises websites, magazines, seminars, food fairs, and a gastronomic university. It has gone global and inspired an ever-expanding food retail chain under the Eataly brand. Contrast this with the fate of France’s anti-McDonald’s lobby. Led from 1999 by a charismatic farmer, José Bové, who shot to notoriety by destroying a McDonald’s building site, the protesters chose to join the militant wing of the anti-globalization struggle. In 2007 Bové gained 1.3% of the vote at the Presidential election and disappeared into the European Parliament.
So the continuing success of McDonald’s in Europe — its second largest area by presence outside the US — demonstrates yet again the splitting effect that America’s cultural challenges produce, between nations and within them. Slow Food gets the headlines but McDonald’s gets the youthful crowds. Traditionalists and cultural élites (not always the same) tend to deplore the low-cost, quantity-over-quality thrust of the chain, just as they have done since the days of Woolworth’s and Hollywood, and as they do today in nations like India, where small shops fight the spread of supermarkets. Now, ten years after the Iraq war, America’s presence in the world seems less controversial than it once was, and so does McDonald’s. Whether the brand still acts as a stand-in for the nation we shall only see in the next crisis. In the meantime the company believes it has found a synthesis of its own best traditions and those of the young and old who rush into its restaurants, looking for speed, value — and a safe hamburger — wherever they are.
David Ellwood is an Associate Professor of International History at University of Bologna and Adjunct Professor in European-American Relations at Johns Hopkins University, SAIS Bologna Center. He is the author of The Shock of America: Europe and the Challenge of the Century. His first major book was Italy 1943-1945: The Politics of Liberation (1985) then came Rebuilding Europe: Western Europe, America and Postwar Reconstruction (1992). The fundamental theme of his research — the function of American power in contemporary European history — has shifted over the years to emphasize cultural power, particularly that of the American cinema industry. He was President of the International Association of Media and History 1999-2004 and a Fellow of the Rothermere America Institute, Oxford, in 2006.
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Image credit: Pas de Starbucks à Montmartre poster from PARIS FIERTÉ via PARIS FIERTÉ website. Used for the purpose of illustration.