The view, admiringly or not, that the French differ intractably from their neighbours, is enshrined in cliche.

The view, admiringly or not, that the French differ intractably from their neighbours, is enshrined in cliche.

But it’s the internal differences between the French and the French that’s enlivened the debate, for France risks becoming a more polarised society. No wonder that President Hollande urged in his victory speech: “Il n’y a pas deux France … Il n’y a qu’une seule France.”

The French election (which saw the extremes of left and right win a combined 30% of the first round votes) mirror polarisations in other walks of French life, such as what they wear, where they eat and how they shop. Divergent trends are not just a phenomenon of the ballot box; but nor are they really that new.

The insidious rise of extremist politics must never be ignored: European history warns us not to be blasé. However, the French electorate is not suddenly revolting – Marine Le Pen only got 1% more of the votes than the percentage polled 10 years ago by her decidedly less media-friendly father. The centre does still hold and anarchy is not about to be loosed upon France.

But the French map is being redrawn (and annexed from foreign shores) across numerous domains. In haute couture, for example, French designer brands unquestionably belong to the global elite but the roll-call of their head designers is decreasingly French. 

In haute cuisine as well, the upper echelons are no longer the exclusive preserve of native Maîtres Cuisiniers – top chefs are as likely to be Spanish, Japanese, British or Scandinavian.

But it’s what’s happening in the mass market that’s the most telling for France at large: just as fast fashion, much of it also foreign-led, is polarising the French clothing sector, fast food is doing the same to French gastronomy, and at an even faster rate. And the driving force here is decidedly non-French.

McDonald’s has 1,200 outlets in France. It’s transformational impact in a country where one might have imagined resistance to be at its strongest, is in fact second to none.

So much so that ‘McDo’, as it’s affectionately dubbed in France, is using this market as a test-bed for various initiatives: a ‘GoMcDo’ app to order and pay remotely in advance and pick up at fast-track checkouts, table service restaurants (half the chain to be reformatted thus over the next 18 months), and the launch of the McBaguette.

All good fodder for Mme Le Pen as she vigorously bangs her anti-globalisation drum.

Ironically, one of the most global retailers, and the second largest in the world, is French. Carrefour has international issues to address for sure, but its biggest one is domestic.

The polarisation of the French food retail sector between giant stores and small shops, and multiple groups and independents, has proved a strategic quagmire for Carrefour: its Planet hypers have failed to live up to their hype and its small store Dia chain has been allowed to float away. 

At least there’s now a Frenchman back at the corporate helm. Shareholders will be hoping he can make a difference.

  • Michael Poynor, managing director, Retail Expertise