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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

France's Love Affair With Hamburgers

PARIS -- Never mind that Denis Hennequin was the top executive here when a half-built McDonald's restaurant was bulldozed seven years ago to protest the Americanization of France.

"We are an icon, a symbol, we don't claim to be otherwise," Hennequin said. "Yes, we were shocked," he went on, recalling how his business meeting was interrupted by the news of the bulldozing.

But even as protesters sought to cast McDonald's as the embodiment of all that is wrong with American culture, the French never stopped eating its hamburgers. Indeed, for all the attacks on the company, McDonald's operating profit in France last year was second only to that of McDonald's in the United States.

Hennequin, now president of McDonald's Europe, says one of his most compelling lessons about doing business in France came from the bulldozer incident. After the demolition, he started ad campaigns telling customers more about McDonald's France, what ingredients it used and what kind of people it employed.

Part of his success lies in blurring the national lines about what kind of restaurant McDonald's is. For one thing, all the buns, meat and other ingredients are from France; virtually all the work force is French.

McDonald's success in Europe comes amid its resurgence in the United States. McDonald's in the United States bounced back by introducing healthy foods, like salad and fruit. Europe did not suffer as harsh a slump as did McDonald's in the United States. In fact, the strength of the French and other European restaurants helped the parent company get through the rough patch.

In some ways, Hennequin admits, McDonald's reflects the contradictions of French society. "It's one of the French paradoxes," he said. "The French like to be a little disruptive, provocative. Yet at the same time they vote with their feet. We serve 1 million customers every year."

Last year, in an event that echoed the bulldozing, the police in northern Lille found a plastic figure of Ronald McDonald that had been stolen from a McDonald's dangling beneath a city bridge with a ball and chain attached to one foot. Hennequin played down the incident, noting that Ronald was ready prey for pranksters. "He's an easy target," he said.

But of the bulldozer incident, he said: "Suddenly there was this wake-up call. What are we doing? Without any cynicism, I thank [them] for helping us grow into that role."

"The French have a way of protesting by struggling," he said. "Don't forget, we killed our king; in Britain, they still have the queen."

He says the French took quickly to McDonald's, despite their own sophisticated cuisine, because it was fast and affordable. And it was child-friendly, not a characteristic of the traditional French restaurant.

"If you had kids and tried to go to a traditional restaurant," he said, "it was a nightmare."

Also crucial, he says, was a French "fascination with America."

"It's love and hate," he said. "And there are so many Americas. The America of George Bush and that of Bill Clinton. New York is not San Francisco."