Eleanor Beardsley / NPR
In France, McDonald's is often a symbol of everything that is despised over American capitalism and fast food culture. For years, a Parisian district struggled to keep the golden bows from settling among its traditional butchers and bakers (eventually losing it). And the actions of an anti-globalization farmer named José Bové, who tried to dismantle a McDonald's 20 years ago, are legendary.
But for a year, a group of McDonald's employees in the southern French city of Marseille have been fighting to save his McDonald's restaurant.
The French fighting for Ronald? I had to find out why.
The McDonald's in question is a 20-minute taxi ride from the historic port of the Mediterranean city, in a district north of the city known for crime and drug gangs. These golden arches are set amidst public skyscrapers housing workers and their families who came to France during the 1970s economic boom from places like Algeria and Morocco. But the jobs have long since dried up.
At first glance, this "Macdo", as the American fast food giant in France is called, looked like any other. But as I got closer, I saw that the windows were stuck inside with black plastic garbage bags. On the outside were signs with slogans like "We want to work!" and "Dialogue now!"
I was greeted by Kamel Guemari, a manager at the restaurant and the 37-year-old leader of the resistance. "We expected you!" he said warmly.
Guemari has a decent dark beard and friendly brown eyes. He has been working here for 20 years and started to work at the age of 16 after his first job.
Guemari takes me on a ride to show me the neighborhood in which he grew up. We drive through clusters of impersonal skyscrapers. The laundry hangs on the windows. Doors and windows are broken. The terrain around the buildings is dotted with old sofas and overcrowded dumpsters. Drug dealers sit on chairs at some entrances to the buildings.
Guemari says that as a teenager he was severely hit by his parents' divorce. He broke off the school. He lived partially in the street and tried in drug trafficking. He points to a child with a ski mask in front of his old house – a lookout for the traders. Guemari says he could have gone that route if he had not met anyone in those projects 20 years ago.
The person who changed his life? "Ronald McDonald," he tells me.
"At the time, Ronald was touring the neighborhood, bringing magic to the children to help them forget their worries," he says. "They brought games and Happy Meals. It was wonderful."
On this day in 1998, the McDonald's crew could not carry everything and had to leave behind some supplies like the big orange juice cooler. Guemari told the crew not to worry – he would take care of it.
"They trusted me," he says. When he returned the stuff the next day, he asked for a job.
Over the next two decades, Guemari set up a career and helped attract other young people off the streets, giving them the same opportunity they get would have. He says this McDonald's is an important part of the neighborhood today.
"It's like the Bronx here," he says, comparing his church to the mythical New York district. "We are hit by high levels of unemployment and insecurity, and sometimes children just have to succeed through drugs or crime, which McDonald's plays a social role in giving these children a job and a second chance."
Guemari says McDonald's is also like the central café in every French city. "It's a safe place where everyone can come and relax," he says. "Even the criminals respect this McDonald's."
The difficulties began last year when the franchisor announced that he would sell his bouquet of six McDonald's which also included Guemari's. Five were sold to another McDonald's franchisor. Guemari's shop, however, was to be sold to a restaurateur, who wanted to turn him into a Halal restaurant.
Given the majority Muslim population of this neighborhood, this may have been a smart idea. But for these Muslim McDonald's employees, that was an additional insult to the injury. McDonald's meant something. It had connected her with the rest of France. As Guemari put it: "Someone has tried to turn our neighborhood into a Muslim ghetto."
This prompted Guemari to take a drastic step.
He locked himself in the restaurant, poured petrol on himself, and prepared himself for light in agreement. As his colleagues shouted and knocked outside, Guemari poured desperately on Facebook.
In the end, he did not light the match. But the act made him a media star. "McMarter," a local newspaper said. Guemaris train also increased its use in battle. The employees hired a lawyer and sued to stop the Halal sale.
Mohamed Abassi, the franchisor who bought the other five McDonald's, did not want Guemari's McDonald's. And not just because it lost money. He said he did not want the trouble. A well-known Marseille restaurateur, Abassi, said Guemari had turned his workers into soldiers.
"I respect Camel Guemari," he said. "But I do not want to work with him, he's trying one way or another, I'll try the other, okay?" He helped his employees increase their meager salaries and get better benefits.
His actions made him a figurehead of the political left, not just in Marseille, but throughout the country. In 2018, Guemari was invited to speak at La Fête de lí Humanité annual gathering, which can best be described as a socialist state fair. The staff were in the store, nervously waiting for the verdict of the Court over the sale. Followers came and went throughout the day, including some local politicians. The atmosphere was tense. Then the call came from the court. The sale was blocked; They had won. The McDonald's burst with joy. The people laughed and cried. Guemari made a speech.
"Justice has shown today that the small staff, even in this neighborhood, are normal people, just like everyone else in this country!" he exclaimed.
Eleanor Beardsley / NPR
It would be one of the few clear victories for the workers in a fight that has been going on for more than a year now. But the fight was far from over. This McDonald's should not become a Halal restaurant, but it needed a franchisor to survive.
Abassi had watched the victory of the employees from a distance. Not long after, he made an offer to end the trouble. Abassi said he would buy Guemari's McDonald's and run a McDonald's under the condition that Guemari leaves.
Ironically, despite their differing visions of McDonald's, the two men actually have much in common. Both are sons of North African immigrants. Both grew up in the skyscrapers of major French cities and felt like outsiders.
"It's very difficult if you're called Mohamed," says Abassi. "If you are not white with blue eyes, it is very difficult here in France."
Abassi, like Guemari, found acceptance in the American fast food chain: "The first day I came to McDonald's, I found a new kind of spirit, Americans never asked me," Oh, where are you coming from? ""
Abassi says with a hearty laugh that all Americans wanted to know how much money he can make.
He remembers drinking beer with the then president of McDonald's France, an American.
"He usually talked to me!" Says Abassi. You know, in France, someone who's the big boss usually never talks to you like that, he's trying to get a long distance. "
McDonald's motto in France is ] Venez comme vous êtes – "Come as you are." Both Abassi and Guemari heard this call, although their interpretations would differ. For Guemari, this meant that McDonald's children with bad luck had a chance to fight. For Abassi, McDonald's was a place where you can grow and become rich no matter who you are.
A year later, the battle continues to rescue the McDonald's. The workers offer to buy this restaurant and turn it into a cooperative. Guemari and his co-workers say they refuse to abandon the fight for a beloved McDonald's, where they can turn around burgers and fight for their place in the world.