02 April 2011

Lafayette, Nous Sommes Ici

What’s wrong with this picture?

Several generations after the World Wars, when the United States repeatedly saved France’s collective butt, we are still at it. As an American, I’m proud to say that we continue to do for France that which France cannot do for itself — in this case, we are bringing culture and civilization to a backward nation.

Today, a Frenchman can go into a commercial establishment, order a cup of coffee, and sit for hours without feeling the obligation to make an additional purchase. He can read the newspaper, write poetry, or chat with friends, while consuming his coffee (or, as the French call it, café). Amazing! The French never had such an establishment before Starbucks! Some of them even have little tables and chairs on the sidewalk! And what a variety of cafés the French can now enjoy, as never before: dark roasted, espresso, cappuccino, latte, mocha, the list goes on and on. They’ve even got hot chocolate! It takes Yankee know-how to bring these things to France, and today you can find a Starbucks almost anywhere in Paris and in most major cities in this country.

Along the same lines, there are Subway sandwich shops springing up all over France. Isn’t it wonderful? Never before have the French been able to walk into a small shop to order a sandwich on bread freshly baked right there on the premises! A Subway roll is shaped like some thickish sort of stick (or, to use the French word for “stick,” a baguette), which is a completely revolutionary concept in this country. No wonder the French are flocking to these little shops!

Okay, now that I’ve got that out of my system, there are a few points to bear in mind as we analyze the genuinely bizarre phenomenon of the recent and ongoing proliferation of Starbucks and Subway in France.

1. Plus ça change, plus c’est autre chose.
There are slight differences between the products purveyed by Starbucks and Subway, and those that the French have enjoyed for generations.

In the case of Starbucks, it’s size and portability: the cup of coffee one gets in a French café does not ever approach that of a Starbucks “grande” or “venti,” and very few get anywhere near a “tall,” even. Moreover, the traditional French café serves beverages in ceramic cups, which they really don’t want you to take away with you.

In the case of Subway, the difference is variety and choice. No French boulangerie sells so many different ingredients for its sandwiches: even French sandwich chains, such as Pomme de Pain, can’t rival Subway’s variety. No French boulangerie allows customers to mix and match ingredients, and very few French sandwich chains do so: most frequently, sandwiches are made in the morning and ready to go at lunchtime, take ’em or leave ’em.

All of these variations on the classic formulae must hold some appeal.

2. The American Embassy in Hostile Territory
Both Starbucks and Subway seem to have followed the same guidelines: start by opening shops in locations that are frequented by American tourists. The appeal here is clear: the French menus are roughly the same as the American menus, meaning that tourists can speak English when ordering, and still be understood.

Tourists with finicky youngsters in tow may like the familiar brand names, too, because there will be less arguing. Instead of pleading with kids to “try something different, honey,” parents can say, “Oh, look, your favorite! Let’s eat here, shall we?”

Also, the American mania for consistency — the one that leads us to eat at McDonald’s, wherever we go in the world — can be indulged. If you eat lunch in a French café, who knows whether it will be any good? Whereas a Subway sandwich (or a Big Mac, for that matter) will always taste the same. When everything else around you is so unfamiliar, you may prize this kind of comfort.

3. Yé Yé Yé Faux Rêveur!
The thinking seems to be that, once a foothold has been established among Americans, the French themselves will follow. And it must be said that nobody from Starbucks or Subway is forcing the French at gunpoint.

The French themselves are avid tourists who may recognize the American brands from their travels in the U.S. and hope to relive the experience très typique.* Other French people, being generally satisfied with the food they find in American chains devoted to more-or-less American food (KFC’s fried chicken, McDonald’s not-really-from-Hamburg hamburgers), are willing to see what an American chain does with food that’s from closer to home.

However, when I see French people in Starbucks and Subway (through the door, mind you, because I don’t actually go inside), I see that they are, above all, young. And the rise of the two American chains is a valuable reminder that, no matter what the French think of American politics, young people here still hunger for American culture, especially in entertainment.

In a sense, then, going to Starbucks or Subway is no different from listening to American music, watching American TV shows, or attending the latest Hollywood blockbuster. Sure, the French have their own music, TV, and movies — but the American mystique remains powerful, for better or worse.

*NOTE: You should see what they’ve done with breakfast muffins, in the same kind of nostalgic pursuit: sticky, starchy, plastic-wrapped, disgusting, but apparently that’s what the French get in American hotels.


Anonymous said...

I cannot for the life of me understand why any French person would go to Starbucks or Subway or KFC....or MacDonalds for that matter. The prices are high and the quality is low....and these chains are just imitations of what France already did so well!!!!

John Yohalem said...

"... I don't actually go inside ..." LOL - the charming snobbisme we share, Guillaume! I refused to enter the McDonald's in Budapest (probably the most chic spot in the city), though I fondly remember the trash bins labeled "Köszenem." ("Thanks.") But I did go to Starbuck's in Istanbul -- only once, on my last night, because I was going to the opera and didn't think Turkish cappuccino would quite do the trick.

William V. Madison said...

Okay, I confess: I did go to the Starbucks in Lyon a few times during my stays in that city. My hotel didn't offer breakfast, and I typically need a lot of coffee in the morning. But otherwise, I steer clear: I feel as if the French cafés need my business more than Starbucks does. Or do.