Saturday, November 1, 2008

Call it the economy - French flock to Big Macs

Bloomberg News - It's lunchtime in Paris, and the packed restaurant has neither checkered tablecloths nor carafes of red wine. It's a McDonald's, and the French are lovin' it.

While rising prices and record low consumer confidence drive the French to throw their culinary pride to the wind and embrace le Big Mac, traditional bistros are hurting. About 3,000 independent French restaurants filed for bankruptcy in the first half of the year, a record 27 percent more than a year earlier, according to Paris-based statistics office Insee.

Meanwhile, France has cemented its position as McDonald's Corp.'s biggest earner outside the U.S., accounting for 13 percent of total sales.

"A hamburger patty and fries in a bistro around the corner from my office costs almost twice as much," said Alexandre Cavanel, a 27-year-old computer programmer, as he tucked into his 8-euro ($10.70) double-cheeseburger menu meal with colleagues at a McDonald's in Paris' Opera district.

McDonald's, accused by Jose Bove, an activist farmer who ran last year for president, of serving malbouffe, or junk food, said revenue in France will increase 12 percent this year.

In contrast, the fate of traditional French restaurants might worsen as a slumping economy drives more people to swap offerings such as duck dish confit de canard and blanquette of veal for hamburgers and fries, economists said.

France might have slipped into its first recession in more than 15 years in the third quarter, Insee said. Consumer spending will stagnate for the rest of 2008 as employment and the real-estate market deteriorate and credit for new investment dries up, the statistics office said.

"Clearly, the current economic environment speaks in favor of cheaper products," said Dominique Barbet, an economist at BNP Paribas SA in Paris.

Many French restaurateurs and cafe owners are concerned that rising prices and growing unemployment, combined with the global financial crisis, will stop people from dining out in one of the world's most pervasive restaurant cultures.

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