The French are up in arms again over fast food, but instead of tearing down a McDonald’s, this time they are fighting to save one from closing.

The land of haute cuisine is no stranger to protests against malbouffe, or “junk food”. But Marseille residents are now waging a legal and political battle to keep a McDonald’s outlet that has become a “centre of community life” and a much-needed job provider.

Marseille’s conservative mayor, Jean-Claude Gaudin, and its Socialist senator, Samia Ghali, have joined the campaign. If McDonald’s goes ahead with a plan to close its branch in Saint-Barthélémy, a north Marseille neighbourhood plagued by gang violence, drug trafficking and high unemployment, the senator has vowed to “oppose its presence throughout Marseille”.

With a staff of 77, the McDonald’s restaurant is the second-biggest private-sector employer in Saint-Barthélémy, which has an unemployment rate of 30 per cent — more than triple the national average. 

McDonald’s has won hearts and minds by hiring school dropouts and local youths desperate for work after serving prison terms. Many now fear losing their jobs.

The area’s bakery, butcher’s shop and hairdresser have already closed. Salim Grabsi, a member of a residents’ association, said: “There’s nothing left in areas like this and McDonald’s is a centre of community life, a place where families can sit down and relax with their kids.”

Annick Villanueva, a retired teacher, said: “My neighbours bring their grandchildren every week.”

Staff at the branch are challenging the legality of the plan to sell the outlet, owned jointly by a local franchise-holder and McDonald’s France. Kamel Guemari, the assistant manager, said the buyer’s proposal to convert it into an Asian restaurant “is nothing but a smokescreen dreamed up to allow McDonald’s to close without redundancy payouts.”

The franchise-holder, Jean-Pierre Brochiero, says the branch makes a loss. Staff obtained a court order last week suspending the sale on the grounds that he had failed to comply with a legal obligation to consult employees. The court is to rule on the case tomorrow (on Monday).  

The radical French farmer, José Bové, made international headlines by bulldozing a McDonald’s in a protest against punitive US taxes on Roquefort cheese and other French dairy products nearly 20 years ago. Since then, the American fast food chain has become a huge success story in France, which is now one of its most profitable markets. 

Nevertheless, McDonald’s continues to raise Gallic hackles. A court is to rule later this month on whether a McDonald’s can open on the Île d’Oléron, a major tourist destination off the coast of western France. A petition to keep McDonald’s out of the island has gathered more than 81,000 signatures. The local mayor says a McDonald’s would cause traffic jams on an island that is “not about mass consumption.”

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