For centuries, France has been a destination for food lovers from around the world—and for good reason. From spicy boulette d’Avesnes cheeses and sumptuous coq au vin to sweet profiteroles for dessert, the French wrote the book, quite literally, on fine dining.
A just-released report on the country’s food culture, however, won’t do much to quell the fears that the country’s culinary dominance has been slipping in recent years. The study, conducted by the French food-consulting firm Gira Conseil, revealed that sales of hamburgers, pizzas, hotdogs and other fast-food items have surpassed those of traditional restaurant dishes for the first time.
The French spent €34 billion (about $44.3 billion) on fast food in 2012, a figure that surpassed sales at restaurants with table service. Overall, fast-food purchases in France comprised 54 percent of people’s food budget, up from 40 percent in 2011.
Responding to the surprising results, French magazine Le Point made a shocking declaration: “In the land of gastronomy, fast food has become the king.”
The study revealed that the French eat more pizza than any other country on Earth, save for the U.S. What’s more, the French—legendary for their glacial, deliberate meals—now spend an average of just 30 minutes eating, according to the report. Compare that to an average of one hour, 20 minutes in 1975 and you can see how significant the shift in France’s overall food culture really is.
That the French appear to be trading their traditional foods for cheap fast food is an ominous sign of the global dominance of American chain restaurants. McDonald’s, for instance, has more stores in France than any nation other than the United States itself, and the French spent €4.35 billion on burgers and fries (and McBaguettes) in 2012.
France is just the latest in a string of nations to report higher fast-food consumption—and subsequent obesity. Last year, researchers in the Singapore Chinese Health Study found that eating Western-style fast food on a regular basis significantly increased their risk of diabetes and coronary heart disease. And last week, Bolivian president Evo Morales called Western fast food a “threat to humanity” for its role in causing cancer and other diseases.
Besides the obvious health implications of higher fast-food consumption in France, another question is, perhaps, even more important for Frenchmen and Francophiles alike: Will French food go the way of the guillotine?
One French resident, replying to the study results on the food news website Eater, writes that traditional restaurants often feature higher prices and less attentive service. Given the economic downturn of the last several years—a recession that hit Europe especially hard—he writes that it’s no surprise the French are forgoing these establishments in favor of fast food.
“When the average salary for a family of four is 2,300 Euros (that’s with two people working, btw),” writes Philamb168, “it’s no wonder that people, when they choose to eat out, go to the cheapest place they can find.”
Whether French cuisine survives the fast-food attack is yet to be seen. For now, though, it seems the golden arches are taking their place next to the Eiffel Tower as the most recognizable French landmarks.
Que c’est triste.
How do you feel about the foothold fast food now has on French culture?
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Steve’s story about healthy fast food was anthologized in Best Food Writing 2011. His food and general interest stories regularly appear in Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other places. Email Steve | @thebostonwriter