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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: PMLD Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: PMLD Teacher A specialist primary school i...

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links