Liberté, Égalité and French Fries What happens when the employees of a French McDonald's take the corporate philosophy so deeply to heart, that it actually becomes a problem for the company?

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Liberté, Égalité and French Fries

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Liberté, Égalité and French Fries

Liberté, Égalité and French Fries

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GREGORY WARNER, HOST:

You're listening to ROUGH TRANSLATION from NPR. Though she has a French passport and the most French of names - Marie France...

MARIE FRANCE: My name is Marie France (speaking French).

WARNER: ...And though she uses the quaintest French expressions when she's upset...

FRANCE: (Speaking French).

WARNER: (Speaking French), which is like, oh, fudge, it took Marie France 40 years to feel truly French.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Marie France grew up in this public housing project in Marseille in the south of France.

WARNER: Our reporters on this story - NPR's Paris correspondent Eleanor Beardsley and our own Marianne McCune.

(LAUGHTER, CROSSTALK)

BEARDSLEY: So Marie France, even though she was French and born in France, she says she never really felt French. People didn't consider her French. They saw her as African or Muslim from this bad neighborhood. And she said a teacher told her one time...

FRANCE: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: ...Why bother getting your degree? Why don't you just...

FRANCE: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: ...Drop out and make babies?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: She spent the next decades bouncing from job to job, battling depression, raising her daughter alone. And then something changed. She got a new job.

FRANCE: (Speaking French).

MARIANNE MCCUNE, BYLINE: So she pulls out this uniform.

BEARDSLEY: This is her uniform, her first one.

MCCUNE: The uniform is a short-sleeved knit shirt with blue pants.

BEARDSLEY: (Speaking French).

MCCUNE: She's planning to save it forever.

FRANCE: (Speaking French).

WARNER: The job was at a company that Marie France says just summed up all those grand French values she'd learned in school.

FRANCE: (Speaking French).

MCCUNE: Liberty, equality, fraternity.

FRANCE: (Speaking French).

MCCUNE: She told us, "me - the only place that I have found those things is McDonald's."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: You're listening to ROUGH TRANSLATION, the show that takes you to far-off places with stories that hit close to home. I'm Gregory Warner.

If you wanted a perfect symbol of what the French detest about America, picture McDonald's. It's fast food. It's mass produced. You eat it with your hands.

BEARDSLEY: You always hear about how the French say McDonald's is (speaking French), really bad food. You know, you hear about this militant farmer named Jose Bove who, 20 years ago, like, destroyed a McDonald's. He actually did jail time.

WARNER: But today we are going to take you to a neighborhood of Muslim immigrants in Marseille and introduce you to a McDonald's there that residents call their home, their church, their Switzerland; a place of neutrality and peace.

(CROSSTALK)

WARNER: We're going to meet the people who saw the golden arches of McDonald's as their gateway to French society and who took the company's corporate slogan so deeply to heart, it would actually become a problem for the company.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN YELLING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking French).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCCUNE: This neighborhood this McDonald's is in is known mostly for bad things. Marseille is already known in France for its mafias and its drug gangs.

BEARDSLEY: And here's the McDonald's right up here.

MCCUNE: And the news out of this northern part of town is always about shootings and crime.

BEARDSLEY: (Speaking French).

MCCUNE: The guy showing us around, Kamel Guemari - he's pointing out drug dealers on the streets we're passing.

KAMEL GUEMARI: (Speaking French).

MCCUNE: Kamel has a slender face, big brown eyes, big brown beard. He's the son of Algerian immigrants.

BEARDSLEY: Some of those doors are off. And the trash cans are all burned, and...

MCCUNE: There's a couch upside down.

BEARDSLEY: So we're going up to the neighborhood where Kamel grew up.

MCCUNE: Up a lonely winding road to this notoriously scary high-rise complex called La Savine.

BEARDSLEY: (Speaking French).

MCCUNE: He's taking us to this spot where he has a specific memory.

BEARDSLEY: There's only one bus that comes up here, he says.

MCCUNE: Kamel keeps telling me to put my mic down below the windows. He doesn't want to attract attention. And at the last turn in the road, this one kid is standing guard - no one else around.

BEARDSLEY: The young guy there's wearing, like, a head mask, you know?

MCCUNE: A ski mask - he's the lookout for drug dealers. He's maybe 16. And Kamel says that easily could have been him 20 years ago.

GUEMARI: (Speaking French).

MCCUNE: It's when the guy steps out in front of our car that Kamel says, watch out and knocks my mic to the car floor. The kid strolls around to the window to find out what the hell we're doing here. Kamel tells him, I'm from here. And the kid's like, oh, OK, pardon, sorry, and goes back to his lookout spot. It's right around the next bend that Kamel points to a little courtyard, and he tells us...

GUEMARI: (Speaking French).

MCCUNE: It was here that Ronald McDonald intervened.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Unintelligible).

MCCUNE: In 1998, when Kamel was 16 years old, Ronald McDonald came to his high-rise for a visit.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking French).

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in French).

GUEMARI: (Speaking French).

MCCUNE: He did his jokes...

GUEMARI: (Speaking French).

MCCUNE: ...Riddles...

GUEMARI: (Speaking French).

MCCUNE: ...The magic tricks.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Speaking French).

MCCUNE: And Kamel says this visit from Ronald was a major event. People didn't come to this neighborhood from outside, let alone a guy with a red clown mouth doing magic tricks. And in fact, Ronald almost didn't do the show that day. He had to be coaxed into it by this guy.

FABRICE ELBAZ: My name is Fabrice Elbaz.

MCCUNE: Fabrice Elbaz - he was the restaurant manager at the time. He's Jewish. And he was the one who brought Ronald and a car full of snacks and decorations. And Fabrice says, when they pulled up to the housing complex, Ronald McDonald started freaking out.

ELBAZ: (Speaking French).

MCCUNE: Right next to where we parked, Fabrice says, there were three charred cars. So Ronald looks at him, and he says...

ELBAZ: (Speaking French).

MCCUNE: This is where we're doing the thing? For Fabrice, this young manager, it wasn't just about a magic show. This was a hearts and minds campaign, a directive from the very top, part of McDonald's corporate strategy. You court customers by showing up in their neighborhoods. McDonald's had put pingpong tables at the foot of the high-rises, sponsored youth soccer leagues - the kids in McDonald's uniforms. Ronald's visit was a part of all that.

So the actor playing Ronald reluctantly gets out of the car, changes into a striped suit, an orange wig. Fabrice sets up the snacks and party favors and the big orange bowl - the traditional McDonald's cooler with orangeade. More than a hundred kids showed up to see him. The neighborhood moms brought in sambusas, different traditional pastries and cakes, and the party was still going strong when Ronald had to go home - 5 p.m. sharp. He was a union actor. With kids still romping around and drinking their orangeade, Fabrice couldn't pack up the orange bowl and take Ronald home on time. So Kamel, who was then this lanky sort of rumpled kid - he offered to bring it back the next day.

ELBAZ: (Speaking French).

MCCUNE: At this point, Kamel's parents had split. He's living half on the street, sometimes with friends. He wasn't going to school. He was embarrassed about his dirty clothes. And also, he had a lot of trouble reading - undiagnosed dyslexia. And Fabrice, though he's never met this kid from the worst of Marseille's public housing...

ELBAZ: (Speaking French).

MCCUNE: He didn't blink an eye...

ELBAZ: (Speaking French).

MCCUNE: ...Didn't doubt him. Kamel remembers him saying...

GUEMARI: (Speaking French).

MCCUNE: OK, we'll trust you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCCUNE: Next day, Kamel rides a scooter over to the McDonald's, carrying the big orange bowl cooler with him, and he returns it to Fabrice, the manager. And then...

GUEMARI: (Speaking French).

MCCUNE: He asked...

GUEMARI: (Speaking French).

MCCUNE: Would it be possible for him to get a job?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: What Kamel did not realize, standing there, waiting for a yes or no, was that there was something working in his favor; an anecdote that had been told and retold by top executives and franchise owners of McDonalds all around the world. And it was a story about the LA riots of 1992.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: No justice, no peace. No justice, no peace.

WARNER: After the acquittal of a group of white police officers who'd been videotaped beating an unarmed black man named Rodney King, residents in poor black neighborhoods started setting stores and restaurants on fire.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Cheering).

WARNER: But they spared McDonald's. McDonald's, they explained to reporters, was theirs. McDonald's served students free lunches, given out coffee to neighbors and employed their kids.

This was all part of corporate strategy. Other franchise owners were encouraged to hire local. Some of them started paying employees while they did their homework or gave bonuses for good grades, even offered tutoring.

ELBAZ: (Speaking French).

MCCUNE: Fabrice says, yeah, those things are part of marketing...

ELBAZ: (Speaking French).

MCCUNE: ...Or a way of saying, we are here. We're going to stay here, and we're here to help.

So when Fabrice looks at this 16-year-old kid from the neighborhood asking for a job, what he sees is an opportunity for McDonald's to belong to this neighborhood. Here's this kid who's betting that flipping burgers for low wage at his local McDonald's is a better choice than the easy money he could make working for the drug dealers in the housing complex. Fabrice thought, if this kid was going to bet on McDonald's, McDonald's should bet on him. So Fabrice hands him a job application form, says, sit down, write your cover letter. And Kamel - now he's not sure what to do. He doesn't read well. Remember; he's dyslexic. He can't write this on his own. And if Kamel was asking for a job in a regular French company, this is likely where it would have ended.

French company culture, especially back then, was traditional and strict, governed by hierarchy. But McDonald's was different. Fabrice remembers his own first week at the company when the president of McDonald's France...

ELBAZ: (Speaking French).

MCCUNE: ...Came to his restaurant. He was an American guy. And Fabrice is flipping burgers for the first time...

ELBAZ: (Speaking French).

MCCUNE: ...The tie of his uniform is tossed over his shoulder to keep it clean. And the president comes over to congratulate him and says...

ELBAZ: (Speaking French).

MCCUNE: Hi, Fabrice - calls him by his first name...

ELBAZ: (Speaking French).

MCCUNE: ...And Fabrice knew it was a strategy; that his boss had probably learned his name five minutes ago, but he was still enchanted. In other companies, people would definitely be using the formal you. At McDonald's, it was all informal - everyone rubbing shoulders....

ELBAZ: (Speaking French).

MCCUNE: Fabrice actually uses the word magic to describe this moment.

ELBAZ: (Speaking French).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCCUNE: So in that moment with Kamel, this teenager who can barely read, standing there unable to fill out his job application, Fabrice just helps him. They write the cover letter together. And he gets the job, and he's terrible. He doesn't show up on time. He gets angry when his supervisors give him an order he doesn't agree with. He misses whole shifts, whole days, weeks with no warning.

ELBAZ: (Speaking French).

MCCUNE: And then, Fabrice says, he'd show up, all apologies

ELBAZ: (Speaking French).

MCCUNE: Sometimes, Fabrice says, he wouldn't see Kamel for a month. And then he says he would personally walk over to Kamel's housing complex, find him and bring him back.

ELBAZ: (Speaking French).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCCUNE: Fabrice saw something in Kamel. First, the way he'd watch and listen and learn, how he remembered everything he was told. But also, if there was trouble in the McDonald's - some fight broke out, or a purse got snatched - it was Kamel who would come out from behind the counter and break things up, settle the disputes. When Fabrice looks at Kamel now with his combination of muscle and charisma, he thinks...

ELBAZ: (Speaking French).

MCCUNE: ...He's a guy who, if he hadn't ended up at McDonald's...

ELBAZ: (Speaking French).

MCCUNE: ...He would be the biggest crook on the block.

ELBAZ: (Speaking French).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCCUNE: Kamel says he really did want this job. He wanted the regular salary, and he wanted the respect. But then he'd have these days at work where kids he knew from the neighborhood would come in.

GUEMARI: (Speaking French).

MCCUNE: They were these tough kids.

GUEMARI: (Speaking French).

MCCUNE: "And there I am with a mop and a bucket and cleaning off tables. Inside my head, I was like, crap. When I was out on the street, I was tough. And now they're going to say he does the housework."

GUEMARI: (Speaking French).

MCCUNE: On the side, when he wasn't showing up at work, Kamel started dabbling in crime - a little carjacking, delivering drugs across France, even to Spain. It paid better than McDonald's. When he was 18 or 19, He didn't show up to his McDonald's shift for a full six months. And then he remembers this day. He was back in town, and he ran into some of his former coworkers.

GUEMARI: (Speaking French).

MCCUNE: "Come back. Come back to work. You're still on the schedule," they told him. People had basically been covering for him as if he was just out for a sick day. So he walks back into the restaurant. And he says, "I came back, and I've got my uniform on."

GUEMARI: (Speaking French).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCCUNE: He says Fabrice went first into a rage, but then he decided to punish Kamel. That's how Kamel saw it, at least. Fabrice sent him to work at a different McDonald's in an upscale mall an hour away on the bus. And this time, it's not just going to be kids from the neighborhood showing up in name-brand sneakers. The kids who worked at this McDonald's had pools at home and drove their parents' cars to and from work. Their parents were architects and doctors. And this restaurant, it was not run like a family. It was not set up to help kids like him. Fabrice says the boss there was not going to act fatherly and protective.

ELBAZ: (Speaking French).

MCCUNE: He says there was a rigor that Kamel wasn't used to.

ELBAZ: (Speaking French).

MCCUNE: You couldn't miss work.

ELBAZ: (Speaking French).

MCCUNE: You couldn't arrive late. And Kamel, he pulled it off. But what he really remembers about this time is something else, that he was able to fit into this other world, one he had both judged and felt intimidated by. He could command their respect.

GUEMARI: (Speaking French).

MCCUNE: And that, Kamel says, is when he started to feel really confident. It was a declic.

GUEMARI: (Speaking French).

MCCUNE: A switch was flipped.

GUEMARI: (Speaking French).

MCCUNE: He says he was hanging out with his coworkers at their villas and their swimming pools. And...

GUEMARI: (Speaking French).

MCCUNE: ...Even their parents seem to accept him.

GUEMARI: (Speaking French).

MCCUNE: Says, "they didn't say, hey, don't hang out with that kid from the north side."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCCUNE: Fabrice had hoped Kamel's time in the other McDonald's would turn him around, and it did. Six months later, when Kamel came back to work at the McDonald's in his own neighborhood, he was a model employee. And pretty soon, he got selected to go to Paris to take a test to become a manager himself. It's a week-long exam. And on the first day, there's a written test. And if you don't pass, you get sent home. You can't do the rest of the training. So on that first day, Kamel was terrified. Until now, he'd made every effort to hide these parts of himself, that he couldn't read or write well.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCCUNE: In Paris that week, he decided he didn't want to do that.

GUEMARI: (Speaking French).

MCCUNE: Before the first exam, he says he went to the head trainer and just told him the truth.

GUEMARI: (Speaking French).

MCCUNE: "I don't want to cheat," he told him. "But..."

GUEMARI: (Speaking French).

MCCUNE: "...I would like for you to help me succeed."

GUEMARI: (Speaking French).

MCCUNE: They put him in a room.

GUEMARI: (Speaking French).

MCCUNE: They had him read the questions. And when there were things he didn't understand...

GUEMARI: (Speaking French).

MCCUNE: ...The trainer explained the question to him in a language he could understand. Kamel gave the answers. And out of 25 questions, he says he made one mistake.

GUEMARI: (Speaking French).

MCCUNE: That is when McDonald's made a true believer of Kamel. All those years of not giving up on him, helping him succeed over and over again - they got more than a manager. McDonald's won his loyalty.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCCUNE: It's been more than 20 years since that day Kamel promised to return Ronald McDonald's orange bowl. He still works at the same McDonald's where he got his first job. A lot of people have worked here a long time, made careers instead of passing through. To them, this little one-story restaurant amidst the miles of high-rises is this strange little oasis.

BEARDSLEY: This is where they all grew up. The mothers came here. They brought their kids.

MCCUNE: So outside there's a red-brick patio, and there's a big play structure they call a gym, like, a little tower, and there's the little slides and windows they can peek through.

BEARDSLEY: The village cafe, basically.

MCCUNE: There are all kinds of families eating at picnic tables. It's truly like the billboards that you see around France for McDonald's. You see people of all ages and skin shades and dress styles. There are two women in headscarves eating fries. There's a blond dad squirting mayonnaise on his son's burger.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking French).

MCCUNE: Some of the moms who live around here told us they know their teenagers are safe if they text from McDonald's.

GUEMARI: (Speaking French).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Speaking French).

MCCUNE: Kamel knows everyone here and probably their grandparents. He's always greeting people with kisses on both cheeks...

GUEMARI: (Speaking French).

MCCUNE: ...Whether it's a longtime customer or his staff. And he's spent all these years trying to bring people up the way Fabrice did for him, like a kid who works here now that they've hired straight out of prison, or Marie France, the single mom who we met who says...

FRANCE: (Speaking French).

MCCUNE: Oh, puree - oh, fudge. She says, when she first started working here, she had health problems. She was overweight.

FRANCE: (Speaking French, laughter).

MCCUNE: She couldn't move fast enough to fill the orders in time. "I was so slow," she says.

FRANCE: (Speaking French).

MCCUNE: She was worried that she was going to be fired. But instead of firing her, Kamel coached her.

FRANCE: (Speaking French).

MCCUNE: One day, Kamel said this phrase to her.

FRANCE: (Speaking French).

MCCUNE: He said, here at this McDonald's...

GUEMARI: (Speaking French).

MCCUNE: ...Come as you are. It's actually McDonald's corporate slogan in France now. It's all over their ads. But for Marie France, it felt like so much more than a slogan. It felt like gospel.

FRANCE: (Speaking French).

MCCUNE: Just like Kamel, she came with flaws. They accepted them, and they helped her overcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCCUNE: But last year, Kemal and the other workers started to worry. There were rumblings of problems - some road construction keeping customers away, the franchise owner was sick, and he wanted to sell. There were rumors that it might not even be a McDonald's anymore. And finally, one spring day, Kamel and the others found out those rumors weren't just rumors. They were true.

GUEMARI: (Speaking French).

MCCUNE: "We were all shocked," Kamel says. "Hopeless"

GUEMARI: (Speaking French).

MCCUNE: Now, this McDonald's had been sold before. It's part of a group of six McDonald's in Marseilles that have passed through various hands through various franchise owners. But it's always been a McDonald's since 1992. Now, with the threat of the Golden Arches coming down, Marie France says they started trying everything to save the restaurant.

FRANCE: (Speaking French).

MCCUNE: The franchise owner told them they had to run a tighter ship to work faster and make the place shine, clean the walls, clean every nook and cranny. And so they did. They got on their hands and knees to scrub the toilets.

FRANCE: (Speaking French).

MCCUNE: They made the place impeccable.

FRANCE: (Speaking French).

MCCUNE: When that didn't work, they started taking things into their own hands, trying to figure out someone to buy the franchise and keep it a McDonald's, meeting with a lawyer to see if they could stop the sale.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCCUNE: But still, one hot summer day, the owner announces he's sold it. And while the other five of his McDonald's are going to a new franchise owner, this McDonald's will not be a McDonald's anymore. And Kamel, he calmly locks himself inside the McDonald's with a gallon of gasoline. Once he's inside and no one else can get in, he starts live-streaming on Facebook.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GUEMARI: (Speaking French).

MCCUNE: On the video, you can see how skinny he's gotten. He's got bags under his eyes. He's only sleeping two or three hours a night. He's at risk of losing this place where he has spent half his life. He loves this place. There are all these people there who look to him to know what to do, and he says he let them down. So he starts pouring the gasoline all over himself.

(SCREAMING)

MCCUNE: Marie France is outside with a bunch of the other employees knocking on all the doors, calling for help, shaking, crying.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GUEMARI: (Speaking French).

WARNER: ROUGH TRANSLATION, back in a minute.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: This is NPR's ROUGH TRANSLATION. When we left our story, Kamel had locked himself inside that McDonald's, drenched in gasoline, still streaming on Facebook Live. Journalists are arriving outside, along with police and firefighters, and Kamel looks into his camera and mentions a name...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GUEMARI: (Speaking French).

WARNER: Abbassi - he's the guy who's buying the other five McDonald's.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GUEMARI: (Speaking French).

WARNER: Why won't you buy our McDonald's, too? It's because it's on the north side in this forgotten neighborhood.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GUEMARI: (Speaking French).

WARNER: And then he demands to talk to local politicians. And a senator actually answers his call. She promises to help and tells him, don't abandon your co-workers. So Kamel unlocks the door, walks out and is led away by a firefighter who wants to make sure he's OK. That guy that Kemal mentioned, Abbassi - the one buying the other five McDonald's - he knows all about this Facebook video and says that the reason he's not buying this McDonald's is not because of what neighborhood it's in. It's because of who works there.

Mohamed Abbassi lives in a posh neighborhood in Marseille. He says his neighbors are still surprised to find a family with Moroccan roots living next door. But he got rich as a McDonald's franchise owner. And he's known Kamel for years. He's seen him rise up and become a leader.

MOHAMED ABBASSI: I have a respect for Mr. Kamel Guemari, OK? but I don't want to work with him, OK? He chose one way. I chose another other way, OK?

WARNER: Abbassi had known Kamel for years. He'd seen him rise up and become a leader. And he'd seen him use his charisma and his toughness to fight for higher salaries and better benefits. Abbassi says he turned workers into soldiers, which is not what Abbassi wants.

ABBASSI: This person - they only one for me, OK? It's not soldiers, you know, just workers.

WARNER: And so because Abbassi didn't want it, and nobody did, the owner had sold this McDonald's to a halal foods company called Ali Foods (ph). McDonald's in France doesn't do halal. Couple weeks later, we asked NPR's Paris correspondent Eleanor Beardsley to head down to Marseille.

BEARDSLEY: Yeah. So I went down there, and I was quite surprised.

I see the McDonald's. It looks like a regular McDonald's on a busy traffic circle till you get closer.

All the windows of this McDonald's had black trash bags taped up so you couldn't see inside.

And you see all the posters in the windows - union posters. Open to dialogue, says one in big red letters. One of them says, total support to Kamel Guemari, who wanted to sacrifice his life for us. Let's go see.

(Speaking French). So people are still wearing their uniforms. It's just a couple of employees in here. I'm looking at the mattress on the floor, where some employees have been sleeping here every night since it's been occupied.

So I ran into all kind of employees, even Fabrice, Kamel's first manager. And he was incensed, especially about the idea that they wanted to turn this McDonald's into a halal restaurant.

ELBAZ: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: You know, there're already halal restaurants here. They don't need another one. Fabrice is saying that this McDonald's is like a door to the rest of the world for people here. It's really a link to society. It's a link to the France outside of this neighborhood.

ELBAZ: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: In fact, everyone I talked to, but especially Muslims, were angered by this. They said opening a halal restaurant would be turning their neighborhood into some sort of Muslim ghetto.

FRANCE: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Marie France, you know, before the decision, she's so dispirited. And she says...

FRANCE: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: I feel like they're rejecting all the principles they wanted us to hold dear...

FRANCE: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: ...Like integration, acceptance, being given a second chance. Everything that gives us hope to succeed, they're rejecting now.

FRANCE: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: They'd been McDonald's. McDonald's means something to the world. What does Ali Foods mean? Nothing.

WARNER: So that's why the black bags in the windows and the mattresses on the floor - Kamel has organized all these workers to block the sale until the court can decide.

BEARDSLEY: They sued to block it because they said this was not a legitimate company. It would go bust in six months, and they would all lose their jobs. And it would be the French state who would pay their unemployment instead of McDonald's.

WARNER: They argue in court that the sale was actually a scheme to fire the McDonald's workers who'd been there for years.

BEARDSLEY: And I was in the McDonald's when we were waiting for the court's decision.

So everyone's sort of showing up today before the decision, greeting each other. I think there's going to be more and more people.

I'll never forget all the people coming in and out - people just from the neighborhood and people from other areas of Marseilles. And you had, like, a congressman from Marseilles, and you had local officials.

WARNER: Hours pass. It's a long wait. Thankfully, they're open enough to be making friends.

BEARDSLEY: (Speaking French).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: OK, the McDonald's employees are sitting here, waiting for the phone call from the court. There's a lot of media around.

(APPLAUSE)

BEARDSLEY: And they announced it, and the lawyer - they were on the phone with a lawyer, and it just erupted. Everyone erupted.

Oh, my God. It looks like they won.

(APPLAUSE)

BEARDSLEY: And there's tears in people's eyes. It's incredible.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: So the decision is made. The sale has been canceled. People are really happy.

(CROSSTALK)

GUEMARI: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Then Kamel starts to speak, and he talks about - this is just vindication. The little, low-down employees, even from this very poor neighborhood in the north of the city, have been recognized.

(CHEERING)

GUEMARI: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Dancing in the parking lot...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: (Singing in French).

BEARDSLEY: You know, everybody just was partying and playing all these great left-wing songs, like the Italian resistance song from 1944 that everybody knows here.

WARNER: How does that go?

BEARDSLEY: Ciao, bella. Ciao, bella. Ciao, ciao, ciao. I mean, it's a great song. And then they were singing, you know, just these great street songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: (Singing in French).

BEARDSLEY: I thought this was going to be the end. I just thought, well, we're going to celebrate. They kept their McDonald's, and that's the end of the story. But that's when things got really complicated.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BEARDSLEY: Well, OK. I came for the party where they were going to celebrate. And Kemal was going to give a speech and all that. All the drinks are out. I mean, there's Coke and all the chips and yucky little candies. But, you know, everybody's ready. And then, all of a sudden, the party seems to be off.

WARNER: Did you literally walk in and - to a celebration and see nobody there? It's just...

BEARDSLEY: Yeah...

WARNER: ...Chips and Coke.

BEARDSLEY: Exactly. All of a sudden, Kamel and people were rushing in. I'm, like, what are you doing? Where are you going? He said, we've got to go. We've got to go to the other McDonald's. And why? What's going on? Abbassi is coming. He's shown up there. It's, like, what do you mean? I just didn't get it at all. And I was totally lost, yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: Hey, it's Gregory here. And before we get back to the show, we would love your help. We are already thinking ahead to our next season of ROUGH TRANSLATION. And we want to hear what you think of the show. What do you want more of? Where in the world do you want us to go? Let us know. You can open Apple Podcasts and write a review or send it on Twitter or by email. I will personally read every single one of these. It really does make a difference to what we do. Now back to the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: We are back with NPR's ROUGH TRANSLATION. And to understand where we left off - with Eleanor at a party and nobody there - you have to understand that Kamel was now facing a kind of choice - whether to celebrate a victory in this battle or go to war because there was another part of that court decision. Yes, the court had stopped the sale of this one McDonald's, but it had approved the sale of the other five to Mohamed Abbassi, the franchise owner who wants nothing to do with Kamel. Now Kamel's McDonald's was split off from the rest. And this maybe more than you wanted to know about fast food economics, but if you've got six McDonald's, you can share costs. You can absorb a, say, high paid employee who's been there for decades, like Kamel. A standalone McDonald's - that is much more precarious.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCCUNE: The whole time that Kamel was growing up in this McDonald's - learning the deep fryer and the cash register and then how to manage and motivate a team - he'd also been a kind of student of power. If at first he was the employee who would break up a fight or run down a purse snatcher, now he could rally dozens of McDonald's employees to fight. So in the middle of what was going to be a celebration, Kamel and the other organizers of the protest huddle around a table together. And they're telling him, we're counting on you. Kamel decides to put to use all the leadership skills he'd learned during his years at McDonald's and stand up to the new franchisor - stand up to Abbassi. He's going to try to reverse the whole sale.

BEARDSLEY: Oh, my God. This next day, I was kind of shocked. So we went around to these McDonald's.

And it's cool and dark inside another McDonald's in Marseilles.

They were occupied. We drove up to McDonald's - regular McDonald's, you know? You felt you could have been in America. And then you'd go up, and you'd see the black trash bags on the window.

The windows are blacked up.

And you'd go inside, and the workers would be there and huddled around. And Kamel would give them a booster speech. And they'd talk, you know, rah, rah, and right what you did, and yes, we're with you.

So there's more employees huddled back here.

Everybody's wearing these shirts that say McStrike (ph).

WARNER: McStrike - it sounds like - so there's a bit of an anti-McDonald's aspect to this.

BEARDSLEY: You know, it's really funny. There should be a huge anti-McDonald's - and this is what I can never quite figure out. Through all of this, nobody is hating McDonald's. They felt they were helping McDonald's International from this ignominious ending in Marseilles that the local, horrible franchisor had plotted and planned for them.

Well, we're leaving McDonald's. (Speaking French).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: (Speaking French).

MCCUNE: In the union office where Kamel and the other workers go to strategize, there's a photo of the franchise owner, Mohamed Abbassi, the one who bought the other five restaurants but refused to buy the McDonald's where Kamel works. The photo is doctored to show him wearing a turban. And in the background, there are airplanes flying into the World Trade Center. They're making him out to be Osama bin Laden.

ABBASSI: Really, I know all that they - all that happened. You know, it's fake news, OK?

MCCUNE: By the time I met Abbassi at his office above one of his flagship McDonald's, he had reclaimed control of the McDonald's he'd bought. There were no more plastic bags in the windows. But the fate of Kamel's and Marie France's restaurant - it was still in limbo. And the fight between Kamel and this new owner was still going full-force - ongoing lawsuits, still bitter and nasty, each side calling the other thugs in person and on social media.

You can get onto Facebook.

ABBASSI: (Speaking in French).

MCCUNE: But beyond all the vitriol and the tit for tat, each man was fighting for his vision of what McDonald's is and what it should be. The surprising thing is Abbassi has a remarkably similar story to Kamel's. Growing up, he also felt like an outsider in France.

ABBASSI: It is very difficult, you know, when your name is Mohamed, OK? You're not white with blue eyes. It's very difficult to get (unintelligible).

MCCUNE: Abbassi also grew up in the poor outskirts of a French city. McDonald's also gave him his first real break, and he rose up from there. And Abbassi has his own memories of being treated like someone worthwhile at McDonald's. He once drank beer with the president of McDonald's France.

ABBASSI: He speak with with me normally, OK? How are you? Fine, you know? I'm very shocked.

MCCUNE: McDonald's told each of them, come as you are. But Abbassi heard something different than Kamel in that phrase. Kamel heard, McDonald's is an institution that will take in hard-luck kids and turn them into respected leaders. Abbassi heard, McDonald's is a place where, no matter who you are, if you work hard, you can rise up and get rich.

ABBASSI: Americans never tell me where we come from.

MCCUNE: He says they just want to know...

ABBASSI: How much I can give them of money, you know?

MCCUNE: ...How much I can earn for them.

ABBASSI: (Laughter). (Speaking in French).

MCCUNE: Mohamed Abbassi says McDonald's is trapped in the middle of all the French paradoxes. We want businesses, but we don't want bosses. We want to take care of poor neighborhoods, but we don't want to pay the taxes for it. He says before, the French left protested McDonald's, even cheered when a restaurant was torn down.

ABBASSI: And now they tell, oh, this restaurant is very important.

MCCUNE: He says now they want McDonald's to do social work, to take care of people.

ABBASSI: You need McDonald's (laughter). It's just crazy, OK? (Speaking in French).

MCCUNE: It's so cynical, he says. People are cynics.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: The argument between these two men about the fate of one McDonald's in the northern outskirts of Marseilles actually gets to the heart of one of France's biggest debates right now about what French companies owe their workers. You might remember that last year, the streets of French cities were paralyzed by labor protests. Eleanor covered them all year.

BEARDSLEY: You know, President Macron, Emmanuel Macron, has come in, and he said he wants to change the French rigid labor market and bring France into the 21st century. And what he's done is he's trying to reform that labor market. And, you know, the country really seems split. There's half the country that says, thank God. It's about time. It's way too hard to fire people, so you can't hire people, and everything is frozen. And then you have, you know, the left, which thinks, you don't lay people off for shareholders. That's something you do in America, where they let people just live on the street.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCCUNE: Abbassi is not the kind of boss that would have kept teenage Kamel on his staff.

ABBASSI: (Speaking in French).

MCCUNE: I am not a tender guy, he says. You don't succeed in business by being tender. He has employees who've risen from the bottom to the top. And he might have hired Kamel, but he wouldn't have given him those third, fifth, sixth chances. Now Kamel and his co-workers are making so much noise, their fight to save their McDonald's is bringing so much bad press, it's making his McDonald's look bad. He just wants all that to go away. So he has changed his mind, and he's offering to buy it. But only on one condition - that he cut the four senior positions at the restaurant. So the McDonald's can stay a McDonald's only if Kamel leaves.

ABBASSI: So don't think this is a solution. There are no solutions for this restaurant. And I think that finally, it will be close, OK? And all the jobs are lose.

MCCUNE: One way to look at it - Kamel's best chance of saving this McDonald's that he loves may be to abandon it.

What's going to happen to Marie-France?

ABBASSI: Marie France need to speak with Kamel, OK? You have a chance to leave, OK, and to go to take a new job. But me, Marie France, I need these jobs. That's what I tell to Marie France to tell to Kamel. Accept the solution that Mr. Mohamed Abbassi give you, OK? Don't think only about yourself, but think above the collectivity, OK? It's a collective.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMMING)

MCCUNE: There is no way that Marie France is going to tell Kamel to leave.

FRANCE: (Speaking in French).

BEARDSLEY: She says, "Kamel is very important."

FRANCE: (Speaking in French).

MCCUNE: "He's our shield. He's our protection. If it weren't for him and the others, I would never have been hired. These are people with heart."

FRANCE: (Speaking in French).

MCCUNE: And she says more important to her than a job is the warrior she's become.

FRANCE: (Speaking in French).

MCCUNE: "I didn't know this side of myself," she says. "At 42 years old," she says, "I'm waking up."

FRANCE: (Speaking in French) (Laughter).

MCCUNE: And if Kamel doesn't keep fighting, and if she doesn't keep fighting with him, she says...

FRANCE: (Speaking in French).

MCCUNE: "Excuse me, but France has a history, and a lot of people forget it. They forget the values of France."

FRANCE: (Speaking French).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BEARDSLEY: Ah, the latest - Kamel called me this morning. He called me this morning. They received a letter from the franchisor. It seems he's taking the legal steps to close this McDonald's down for good.

MCCUNE: We called McDonald's France about this battle. A spokesperson told us it's a local issue, that they've talked to both parties and that the parties have to work it out between themselves.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCCUNE: There was one person who was willing to buy Kamel's and Marie France's McDonald's with all its warriors from the bottom to the top, and that person was Fabrice Elbaz, the manager who first hired Kamel 20 years ago. He's done well, and he says he can come up with the money. He says he's a capitalist, too.

ELBAZ: (Speaking in French).

MCCUNE: He said he told McDonald's, let us try at least. And if we end up losing money, then you can shut it down. But he says McDonald's wouldn't give him permission to become the franchise owner.

ELBAZ: (Speaking in French).

MCCUNE: Fabrice's theory...

ELBAZ: (Speaking in French).

MCCUNE: He says, "they don't want us to become more powerful than we already are." On this one point, everyone we talked to agrees - that giving this McDonald's to Fabrice and the others - it would send a message around the world that you can occupy a McDonald's and win. So Fabrice, after 25 years with McDonald's, he's given up and is moving on to Burger King.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: Today's show was produced by Jess Jiang and Marianne McCune. This, by the way, is Marianne's last week with our show. She is joining the team at WNYC. We are very sorry to see her go. She is a joy to work with and has been an incredible collaborator and radio-smith. You can follow all her future projects on Twitter. She's @MarianneMcCune - that's two Ns, two Cs.

This episode was edited by Amy Drozdowska. Many people listened to this piece and made it better. Thank you to Karen Duffin, Jacob Goldstein, Hanna Rosin, Sana Krasikov, Nicola Sana (ph) and Goffin Bdupele (ph). Thanks also to Mo Decapatier (ph), Celine Grapsy (ph), Letitia Gentilly (ph), Francesco Brescia (ph), Mike McCune (ph), Kevin Beasley (ph) and our own Autumn Barnes. The ROUGH TRANSLATION high council is Neal Carruth, Chris Turpin, Will Dobson and Anya Grundmann. Mastering by Isaac Rodriguez, our music was composed by John Ellis with help from Eric Dube (ph); scoring by Marianne McCune and Mike Cruz. Our project manager is Erin Register.

Don't forget to drop us a review at Apple Podcasts, and give us your thoughts about the show. And tell a friend about what you heard. It really does help us continue bringing these shows to you. And as always, we'd love to hear from you on email at roughtranslation@npr.org or on Twitter @roughly.

I'm Gregory Warner - back in two weeks with more ROUGH TRANSLATION.

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