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
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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.