A banner saying ‘No to giant fast food chains on rue Montorgueil!’ in six languages recently appeared on one of Paris’s most-richly historical streets. The threat, say local residents, comes from a plan to establish a three storey McDonald’s on the corner with Rue Réaumur. This is an old battle, which appears now to be reaching its climax. On the one side, the multinational, with its lawyers and seemingly implacable determination. On the other, the residents of the 2nd arrondissement, who have been fighting against the project for years.
Anyone who has visited this area of Paris will know that Rue Montorgueil, a pedestrian street, is attractive and full of character thanks to its numerous small businesses, among which are some of the oldest in the city. Les Halles, now turned into a shopping centre, was the wholesale and fresh food market in Paris, that gradually overflowed onto its surrounding streets and gave its name to the neighbourhood itself. Rue Montorgueil has so far survived as a reminder of the area’s bustle in the 19th century. It is home to Stohrer, the historical patisserie founded in 1730, that sells the city’s best desserts and pain au chocolat. Further up the street is Au Rocher de Cancale, a restaurant founded in 1804, famously popular among aristocrats in the 19th century. Balzac was a regular and featured it in his ‘Illusions perdues’ and other works. Nearby Le Compas, a café with a beautiful terrace, proudly announces on its menu that it stands on the site of an old hostel that appears in the work of Zola. Here too is L’Escargot Montorgueil, opened in 1832, still the place to go if you want to try that particular French delicacy.
A demonstration on the 17th of September gathered residents and shop owners declaring that this constitutes “a threat to the neighbourhood’s commercial diversity.” In the flyer calling to join the demonstration, the residents also claim the fast food restaurant is a threat to their health as “proven by several scientific studies”, especially as the chosen building is only 20 meters away from a school. McDonald’s is “the symbol of junk food at the heart of a historic neighbourhood”, they add. The threat to their health goes hand in hand with the threat to the health of the neighbourhood itself.
The battle has been raging for 8 years already. The Paris city council rejected the proposal of a new franchise on the site in 2013 and again in 2015, but the company sued and won the right to build in the area in 2016. When building works started in September, the threat to the street’s authenticity suddenly seemed to be materialising despite the city’s outrage. Even with the support of the city council and local politicians, campaigners have not been able to change the situation.
At a time when the city of Paris is adopting measures to improve the health of its citizens (such as pedestrianising the banks of the seine or introducing controversial cycle lanes), the inability to stop multinational companies like McDonald’s from going against the will of local residents feels more unsettling than ever. The economics of rents in the centre of major cities make it hard to see how small businesses, which take years, or sometimes even centuries to consolidate themselves, can compete against the soulless efficiency of chains.