Save The .... McDonald's? One Franchise In France Has Become A Social Justice Cause : The Salt McDonald's employees in Marseille are fighting to save their restaurant. For them, McD's isn't a capitalist giant; it's a vital community anchor in an under-resourced immigrant neighborhood.
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Save The .... McDonald's? One Franchise In France Has Become A Social Justice Cause

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Save The .... McDonald's? One Franchise In France Has Become A Social Justice Cause

Save The .... McDonald's? One Franchise In France Has Become A Social Justice Cause

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NOEL KING, HOST:

In the French port city of Marseille, there is a fight going on to save a McDonald's. For France, McDonald's is often a symbol of everything that's despised about American fast food culture and globalization. But when a franchiser wanted to turn a McDonald's into a halal restaurant, he found himself facing an employee uprising. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley has the story.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KAMEL GUEMARI: (Speaking French).

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: One day last August, 37-year-old McDonald's manager Kamel Guemari locked himself alone inside his restaurant, doused himself with gasoline and prepared to light a match.

(CROWD SCREAMING)

BEARDSLEY: As his colleagues screamed and pounded on the doors outside, Guemari livestreamed on Facebook.

GUEMARI: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "Employees and their families are going to be plunged into chaos," he said, "McDonald's cannot abandon us." Guemari never lit the match, but I wondered, what would make someone go to such extremes for a McDonald's? I had to go find out.

Bonjour. Eleanor.

I first met Kamel Guemari a month after his desperate protest. His McDonald's is surrounded by public housing high-rises in the northern outskirts of Marseilles. Guemari took me for a ride to show where he grew up.

GUEMARI: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: I mean, there's laundry hanging out. They're kind of rundown, these big tall buildings. And they're showing us...

GUEMARI: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: ...The drug deals going on. And here's the McDonald's right up here. Oh, I see. (Speaking French).

At 16, Guemari says he was hit hard by his parents' divorce. He dropped out of school, lived partly on the street and dabbled in drug dealing. He points to a kid wearing a ski mask outside his old apartment building, a lookout for the dealers. Guemari says that could have been his fate had he not met someone else in these project towers 20 years ago.

GUEMARI: (Through interpreter) Ronald McDonald, he toured the neighborhood bringing magic to the kids to help them forget their worries. It was marvelous. That day, McDonald's left some supplies behind. I said, don't worry. I'll take care of it. They trusted me. So the next day when I brought the stuff back, I asked for a job.

BEARDSLEY: It's been more than 20 years since that day. Guemari still works at the same McDonald's where he got his first job. He's helped pull other young people off the streets, giving them the same chance he'd been given. A lot of people from the neighborhood made careers here. To them, says Guemari, this little one-story restaurant amidst the miles of high-rises is this strange little oasis.

GUEMARI: (Through interpreter) It's like the village cafe. Mothers come here with their kids to enjoy a happy meal. There's no violence. Even the hoodlums respect the McDonald's.

BEARDSLEY: Despite what you might think about the French hating McDonald's, France is McDonald's second biggest market in Europe. The trouble at this Marseille McDonald's started last year when the franchiser decided to sell his bouquet of McDonald's, which includes this one. The five others were to remain McDonald's franchises, but Guemari's was to become a halal restaurant. Ironically, for the mostly Muslim employees, that added insult to injury.

McDonald's had connected them to the rest of France. As Guemari put it, someone was trying to turn our neighborhood into a Muslim ghetto. That's what led to his desperate act. And the first time I arrive, the McDonald's is occupied. The workers have taken it over, some are even sleeping there.

It looks like a regular McDonald's on a busy traffic circle until you get closer. All the windows of this McDonald's had black trash bags taped up so you couldn't see inside. You see all the posters in the windows, union posters. One of them says, total support to Kamel Guemari, who wanted to sacrifice his life for us.

The franchiser buying the other five McDonald's is a prominent restaurateur in Marseille named Mohamed Abbassi. But he says he doesn't want this one. Not only is it losing money, it's too much trouble. Over the years, Guemari has become an effective labor organizer. He's helped his employees boost their meager salaries and get some benefits. But Abbassi says he's turned workers into soldiers.

MOHAMED ABBASSI: I have a respect for Mr. Kamel Guemari, OK? But I not want to work with him, OK? He chose one way, I chose another way, OK?

BEARDSLEY: Ironically, the two men with diametrically different views about how to run this McDonald's actually have a lot in common. Both are sons of North African immigrants who grew up in high-rises feeling like outsiders. Like Guemari, Abbassi found acceptance in the American fast food chain. He says when he first graduated from college, he thought it would be easy to find a job.

ABBASSI: It's very difficult, you know. When your name is Mohamed, OK, you're not white with the blue eyes, OK, it's very difficult here in France. OK? So I make a lot of small jobs, OK? And after - one franchiser of McDonald's, he give me my chance. And it was the first real job I have, OK, it's McDonald's assistant. OK? I'm good worker, OK? So very quickly, I take a job of first assistant of store manager and left a supervisor.

BEARDSLEY: Abbassi says he remembers sharing a beer with the head of McDonald's France, who was an American at the time.

ABBASSI: He speak with me normally, OK? How are you? Fine. You know, in France, when someone is like a post like this one, OK, he don't - he never speak with you like this, normal like this.

BEARDSLEY: McDonald's slogan in France is "Venez Comme Vous Etes" - come as you are. Both Guemari and Abbassi heard that call, though, their interpretations would differ. For Guemari it meant McDonald's will give hard-luck kids a chance. He used the restaurant to fight for social justice. For Abbassi, McDonald's was a place where no matter who you are, if you work hard, you can rise up the ranks and get rich.

After Guemari's threat to emulate himself, the McDonald's employees hired a lawyer to try to block the halal sale. The court verdict was set to be announced the day I arrived.

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

(CROWD CHEERING)

BEARDSLEY: Oh, my God. It looks like they won.

Abbassi watched all this unfold from afar. Not long after, he made an offer. He said he would buy Guemari's McDonald's and keep it a McDonald's on one condition, that Guemari leave. But that was a condition the employees and Guemari could never accept.

GUEMARI: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "This McDonald's has always been more than just a McDonald's" said, Guemari. A year later, the battle to save it is still going on. The workers hope to make a bid to buy this McDonald's and turn it into a worker-owned cooperative. Guemari and his colleagues say they refuse to give up the struggle for a beloved McDonald's where they can both flip burgers and fight for their place in the world.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Marseille.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRISTEZA'S "BALABARISTAS")

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