France goes to fat on fast food

Mary Dejevsky in Paris finds parents alarmed as their increasingly plump offspring shun school dinners for le Big Mac

When the fast food chain, McDonald's, announced recently that its branch in the southern French city of Romans was laying on a free bus service to collect children from the out-of-town lycee at the start of the lunch hour and take them back to school afterwards, there were furious complaints from parents. Here was the distillation of many a bourgeois French nightmare: the American challenge to the French way of life - above all, its food - made manifest.

Everything about the McDonald's shuttle was inimical to French parents: the type of food - hamburgers, Coca-Cola, milkshakes - that their children were eating instead of the traditional French lunch; the noisy, informal atmosphere, compared with the cathedral-like quiet of the school canteen; and the very idea that their children might leave school premises (and therefore supervision) during the lunch hour.

The regional parents' association objected that the "most disadvantaged children" would be "trapped" into frequenting McDonald's, because it was they whose parents could not afford the relatively high cost of school lunches - about pounds 2 each.

Behind the complaints, though, lay not just the image of France swamped by American cultural influence, but a particular and very recent worry. This is the growing fear that the next generation of French people may not be the lithe, well-proportioned and long-lived individuals of today and yesterday, but more like the French perceive Americans: flabby, unhealthy and overweight.

Now it has to be said that in France it does not take much to be considered overweight. The attention to appearance, on the part of both men and women, is common to the much of the urban Mediterranean world. But the stigma of being even plump, let alone fat, in France is enormous. And the statistics say - shock, horror - that French children, boys and girls, are getting fat.

In the Paris region, the number of obese children over 10 is reported to have more than doubled in less than 20 years, from 6 per cent in 1978 to 14 per cent in 1995. This places France, so the doom-mongers say, in a similar position to the United States in 1960; if nothing is done, France could end up like the US today, where 40 per cent of the population is judged obese.

Observation on the streets of French cities (less in the countryside) seems to support the figures. Among French schoolchildren, especially young adolescents, there is a noticeable number who are chubby. The recently acquired enthusiasm for fast food - not just the American variety a la McDonald's, but numerous French imitations - is only one of the explanations offered. A related one is that the younger generation of French has taken to "snacking", as well as, or instead of, eating the traditional three meals a day.

A scientific explanation put forward by a recent French dieticians' study is that children are eating more protein and less fat in their early years, and that this imbalance is creating the problem. Then, the very "improvement" in the French urban diet, they say - less bread and potato, more milk products - also disposes more children to become fat.

The French seem to be moving towards the British approach of emphasising the cost of food at the expense of its quality. Since 1959 the proportion of income spent on food has dropped by nearly half to 18 per cent, almost exactly the same as in Britain. As in Britain, some blame social trends - the increase in the number of working mothers, family break-up or the impact of television - for a decline in family meals and balanced eating.

Others say that children become overweight because of lack of exercise: in France, as in Britain, they are increasingly taken to school by car rather than walking or cycling. In most of France, moreover, organised games form no part of the school curriculum and have to be pursued through special clubs, if at all.

A contributing factor is thought to be the declining take-up of school meals, mainly because of the cost. With school lunches costing FFr15-20 a head, to be paid in advance at the start of the term, and free meals available only to the very poorest, hundreds of thousands of families are opting out.

Few cast aspersions on the quality of school meals. There are three nutritionally balanced courses and dishes that would not disgrace a simple bistro. But a fast-food meal can cost half the price and, as the older adolescents say, you can sit for as long as you like, you can talk and laugh as loudly as you like, and you can smoke...

The claim by the parents of Romans that it is the children most in need of school dinners who are not taking them, also appears to have substance. While three-fifths of French schoolchildren stay for school lunch, the proportion is drastically lower (down to a fifth) in the rundown suburbs of big cities.

A school in Mantes-les-Jolies, a "problem" town east of Paris, has 10 pupils staying for lunch in a canteen built to accommodate 400. A school in the benighted northern suburbs of Marseilles has only 17 out of 900 pupils taking school lunch.

In some deprived areas, canteen managers have noticed a very high consumption of bread with school lunch, suggesting that many pupils have eaten nothing since lunch the day before. There are reports, too, of some primary school headteachers paying for pre-school milk and biscuits for pupils who leave home without the milky coffee or chocolate and bread that constitutes the usual French breakfast.

Defending its plans for the Romans shuttle, McDonald's says that the children needed no encouragement. Dozens of them were regularly making the trip into town each lunchtime before they laid on the bus. It just took them longer to get there.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv'The Last Kingdom' is based on historical events
Arts and Entertainment
filmSir Ian McKellen will play retired detective in new film
Life and Style
Justin Bieber performing in Paris earlier this year
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman and Lauren O'Neil in Jamie Lloyd's Richard III
theatreReview: The monarch's malign magnetism and diabolic effrontery aren’t felt
Arts and Entertainment
'Molecular Man +1+1+1' by Jonathan Borofsky at Yorkshire Sculpture park
Glamour magazine hosts a yoga class with Yogalosophy author Mandy Ingber on June 10, 2013 in New York City.
newsFather Padraig O'Baoill said the exercise was 'unsavoury' in a weekly parish newsletter
people'She is unstoppable', says Jean Paul Gaultier at Paris show
Alexis Sanchez and apparently his barber Carlos Moles in Barcelona today
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Accounts Assistant, Hammersmith

£25000 per annum: Charter Selection: Exciting sports company with a strong bra...

Financial Accountant-IFRS-Gloucester-£300/day

£250 - £295 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Financial Accountant - IFRS - Glouc...

Technical Support Engineer - Central London - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Support Engineer - Central London...

SharePoint/C# Developer - Aberdeen - Circa £40K + benefits

£30000 - £40000 per annum + excellent benefits: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited:...

Day In a Page

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice
Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

Hollywood targets Asian audiences

The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial
Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app - and my mum keeps trying to hook me up!'

Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app'

Five years on from its launch and Grindr is the world's most popular dating app for gay men. Its founder Joel Simkhai answers his critics, describes his isolation as a child
Autocorrect has its uses but it can go rogue with embarrassing results - so is it time to ditch it?

Is it time to ditch autocorrect?

Matthew J X Malady persuaded friends to message manually instead, but failed to factor in fat fingers and drunk texting
10 best girls' summer dresses

Frock chick: 10 best girls' summer dresses

Get them ready for the holidays with these cool and pretty options 
Westminster’s dark secret: Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together

Westminster’s dark secret

Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Dulce et decorum est - a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Dulce et decorum est: a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality
Google tells popular music website to censor album cover art in 'sexually explicit content' ban

Naked censorship?

The strange case of Google, the music website and the nudity take-down requests
Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

As England take on India at Trent Bridge, here is our pick of the high-performing bats to help you up your run-count this summer 
Brazil vs Germany World Cup 2014 comment: David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

Captain appears to give up as shocking 7-1 World Cup semi-final defeat threatens ramifications in Brazil