Save The .... McDonald's Franchise in France has become a cause of social justice
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Kamel Guemari is the leader of McDonald's, a neighborhood in Marseille, France, known for its crime and drug gangs. He has managed staff fees to save the restaurant, which has become a vital anchor for the community in a neighborhood of low-resource immigrants. Eleanor Beardsley / NPR hides the caption
Kamel Guemari is the leader of McDonald's, a neighborhood in Marseille, France, known for its crime and drug gangs. He has managed staff fees to save the restaurant, which has become a vital anchor for the community in the neighborhood of underemployed immigrants.
In France, McDonald's often symbolizes everything despised by American capitalism and fast food culture. One neighborhood in Paris fought for years to keep the golden arches from interfering with its traditional butchers and bakers (it eventually lost). And José Bové, an anti-globalization farmer who tried to dismantle McDonald's 20 years ago, is legendary.
The McDonald's in question is a 20-minute cab ride from the historic Mediterranean harbor in the northern part of the city, known for its crime and drug forces. These golden arches are located in the middle of public skyscrapers built to house workers and their families who came to France from places like Algeria and Morocco during the economic boom of the 1970s. But jobs have long since dried up.
At first glance, this "Macdo" saw the American fast food giant known in France as any other. But as I got closer, I saw that its windows were covered with black plastic garbage bags with the inside taped. On the outside were signs with the slogans, "We want to work!" and "Dialogue now!"
Guemar has a nice dark beard and kind brown eyes. He has worked here for 20 years, rising from the ranks at the age of 16 after getting his first job.
Guemari takes me for a ride to show me the neighborhood where he grew up. We drive through clusters of impersonal high-rise buildings. The laundry hangs from the windows. Doors and windows are broken. The land surrounding the buildings is full of old sofas and swollen dumps. Pharmacy vendors sit in chairs at the entrance to some buildings.
Guemari says he was severely hit by his parents' divorce as a teenager. He dropped out of school. He lived partly on the streets and was involved in drug trafficking. He points to a child wearing a ski mask who is outside the dealerships of his old apartment building. According to Guemar, he could have gone that route if he had not met anyone else on these projects 20 years ago.
"During that time, Ronald visited neighborhoods, offering children the magic to help them forget their worries," he says. "They brought games and happy food. It was wonderful."
That day in 1998, the McDonalds team was unable to carry everything when they left and had to leave some supplies, such as a large orange drink cooler. Guemari told the team not to worry that he would take care of it.
Over the next two decades, Guemar created a career and helped pull other young people off the streets, giving them the same opportunity he was given. He says it is now an important part of the neighborhood at McDonald's.
"It's like 'le Bronx' here," he says, comparing his community to the mythical city of New York. "We are hit by high unemployment and insecurity, and the only way children sometimes succeed is through drugs or crime. It plays a societal role at McDonald's, giving these children a job and a second chance."
According to Guemar, it's also like a central café in a French city at McDonald's. "It's a safe place for everyone to come and rest," he says. "Even criminals respect that McDonald's."
The problem began last year when the franchisor announced plans to sell its bundle of six McDonald's, which also included Guemar. Five were sold to another McDonalds franchisee. But the Guemar shop had to be sold to a restaurateur who wanted to turn it into a halal restaurant.
This may have seemed like a smart idea, given the majority Muslim population in this neighborhood. But for these Muslim McDonald's workers, the insult was even greater. McDonald's meant something. It had united them with the rest of France. According to Guemar, "Someone was trying to turn our neighborhood into a Muslim ghetto."
He locked himself in a restaurant, put on gasoline and made a match. As his colleagues shouted and knocked on the front door, Guemari sparked a storm of despair on Facebook.
He didn't light up at the end of the game. But the act made him a media star. "McMartyr," one local newspaper said. Guemar's move also increased stakes in the battle. The employees hired a lawyer and took the halal to court to suspend the sale.
The remaining five McDonald's franchisors, Mohamed Abbassi, did not want Guemar McDonald's. And not just because it lost money. He said he didn't want to bother. According to Abbas, a well-known representative of a Marseille restaurant, Guemari has turned his staff into soldiers.
Guemari was a student of power and over the years he had become an effective workforce organizer. He helped his employees raise their low wages and get better benefits.
His activities made him a poster boy for the political left, not only in Marseilles, but throughout the country. In 2018, Guemari was invited to speak at the annual gathering of La Fête de l'Humanité, which can best be described as a socialist state fair.
When I first visited Guemari McDonald's, the staff were inside the store, nervously waiting for a court decision on the sale. Supporters filed in and out throughout the day, including some local politicians. The atmosphere was tense. Then came the call from the court. Sales blocked; they had won. McDonald's erupted with joy. People laughed and cried. Guemari gave a speech."Today, justice has shown that small workers, even in this neighborhood, are normal people, like everyone else in this country!" he shouted.
Kamel Guemari speaks to reporters after a court ruling blocked McDonald's sales where he works. A potential buyer wanted to turn it into a halal restaurant. According to Guemar, McDonald's connects its largely Muslim neighborhood with the rest of France. Turning it into a halal would have been like "trying to turn our neighborhood into a Muslim ghetto." Eleanor Beardsley / NPR hides the caption
Kamel Guemari speaks to reporters after a court ruling blocked McDonald's sales where he works. A potential buyer wanted to turn it into a halal restaurant. According to Guemar, McDonald's connects its largely Muslim neighborhood with the rest of France. Turning it into a halal would have been like "trying to turn our neighborhood into a Muslim ghetto."
That would be one of the few clear wins for employees over a year of fighting. But the battle was far from over. It wasn't going to become a halal restaurant at McDonald's, but it still needed a franchisee to survive.
Abbas had watched the victory of the workers from afar. Shortly afterwards, he made an offer to end the trouble. Abbassi said he would buy Guemari's McDonald's and keep it as McDonald's on one condition: for Guemari to leave.
Ironically, the two men, despite their different views of McDonald's, actually have a lot in common. Both are sons of North African immigrants. Both grew up in high-rise buildings in major French cities, feeling like outsiders.
Abbas, like Guemari, found acceptance in the American fast food chain: "The first day I got into McDonald's, I found a new kind of spirit. The Americans never asked me, 'Oh, where are you from?' '"
"He talked to me normally!" says Abbassi. "How are you? Are you doing well? You know, in France, when someone is a big boss, they never talk to you like that. They try to create a great distance."
McDonald's slogan in France is the comme vous êtes "Come as you are" in Venice. Both Abbas and Guemari heard the call, although their interpretations differed. For Guemar, this meant that McDonald's would give children with great fortune a chance to fight. For Abbas, McDonald's was a place where no matter who you were, if you worked hard, you could rise from the ranks and get rich.
A year later, the battle to save McDonald's continues. The employees make an offer to buy this restaurant and turn it into an employee-owned cooperative. Guemari and his associates say they refuse to give up fighting on behalf of their beloved McDonald's, where they can both fold burgers and fight for their place in the world.