- The Washington Times - Friday, March 19, 2004

Oo-la-la.

A pair of French nutritionists have given a spirited oui to McDonald’s traditional “Big Mac” and classic cheeseburger, declaring the American fare more healthy to eat than scandalously rich quiche and other traditional French dishes.

In a new guide to the eateries, food brands and markets of France, dietary researchers Jean-Michel Cohen and Patrick Serog observed, “Strangely enough, the products which are the most demonised are not necessarily the worst.”

They have awarded the two burgers — buns and all — a coup de coeur, or seal of approval.

The “Savoir Manger” guide — which more or less translates as “to know how to eat” — is currently No. 2 on the French nonfiction best-seller list, and first on bookseller Amazon’s sales list for France.

“It is easy to vilify bread, meat and cheese. This objective look at our menu is very refreshing,” said McDonald’s spokesman Walt Riker yesterday. “Any reviewer who takes the time to look at the quality of our menu and the facts we provide can make a fair judgment about what McDonald’s is all about.”

Messrs. Cohen and Serog gauged the attributes of 5,000 goodies around France, including jams, ice creams, sandwiches, soups, candies, breads — even criticizing such native favorites as cassoulet, a hearty bean-and-sausage casserole, and the more exotic duck a l’orange.

The Big Mac and cheeseburger won accolades for their protein content — 25 grams and 15 grams, respectively — compared with their saturated fats — 11 and 6 grams.

McDonald’s has not always had such tasteful victories, however. The restaurant has been at the very vanguard of rancorous squabbles between the United States and France over cultural, trade and economic matters in recent years.

Despite the fact that the Illinois-based company operates more than 1,000 restaurants in France and employs 40,000 French people, some of the locals have declared McDonald’s a cultural enemy — a purveyor of sleazy American malbouffe, or junk food.

Though the first McDonald’s opened in France back in 1972, about 16,000 righteous burger haters still signed an “anti-hamburger petition” when a McDonald’s opened on the Left Bank of Paris 27 years later. Protesters arrived bearing signs emblazoned, “Save our heritage.”

French farmers and environmentalists have accused “McDos” — a popular idiom for the restaurant — of using genetically modified food and hormone-treated beef, which the company has denied repeatedly.

The French government, in fact, banned American beef in 1999, prompting U.S. officials to place heavy tariffs on distinctively French products, such as Roquefort cheese.

And some French are still irked over American lawmaker’s insistence that “french fries” be renamed “freedom fries” in the U.S. Capitol and elsewhere last year after France refused to support the U.S. military effort in Iraq.

Despite fierce but informal boycotts on both shores, the two countries have since somewhat patched up their differences.

Still, the fast-food chain has been a convenient outlet for French outrage. In the past four years, several of the restaurants were bombed or vandalized by irate natives, including a sheep farmer who drove his tractor through a rural McDonald’s.

French heritage advocate Jose Bove also vandalized a local McDonald’s in 2001, vowing that his countrymen were ready to “fight against junk food and against globalisation.” He was later deemed a “folk hero” by the BBC.

McDonald’s remained mostly diplomatic throughout, however, responding with a promotional campaign that used the French cartoon character “Asterix the Gaul” rather than the Stateside clown Ronald McDonald. Another campaign proclaimed the McDonald’s menu to be “Born in America, made in France.”

Indeed, the French franchises use “burgers made in Orleans, salad prepared in Perpignan and brownies made in Brittany,” according to Jeremy Josephs, a British writer who lives in France.

A French executive who works for McDonald’s also does not buy into the idea that the restaurant is compromising traditional French cafes.

“We are offering an entirely different product — no croque monsieurs or baguettes for us,” he told Mr. Josephs. “Besides, who wants to go into a grotty old cafe where the toilets are dirty and waiters rude, too?”

The two French nutritionists, meanwhile, refuse to blame McDonald’s or any other restaurant for contributing to a French obesity problem.

“There is no point in denouncing manufacturers who encourage us to eat ever more heavy, fat and sweet foods,” Mr. Serog told the Independent.

“We have to teach the consumer how to choose what to put in their supermarket basket,” he added. “Our ambition is to help the French eat with their heads and not just their bellies.”

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