McDomination

By Kramer, Gina | Harvard International Review, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

McDomination


Kramer, Gina, Harvard International Review


Trade and the Golden Arches

Through the successful global marketing of the McDonald's franchise, the "Golden Arches" have come to symbolize consistent, routine American fast food.

Yet in recent months the calm facade of McDonald's has been marred by shattering glass and squawking poultry set to roam freely throughout the restaurants, accompanied by the yells of protesters who have led these attacks on the chain restaurants. Protests from Millau, France to Seattle, Washington have grabbed headlines. These protests reflect a set of legitimate and salient trade and cultural grievances situated along a Franco-American divide. The anger behind the protests stems from a set of inter-related issues: escalating trade tensions about the importation of hormone-treated beef, disputes over the openness of European Union (EU) markets to US goods, and French fears of the decay of their national culture as US popular culture burrows deeper into French society. Both because it sells large quantities of beef and because it symbolizes US culture, McDonald's has become a focus for dissent.

Much of the discontent between France and the United States can be attributed to controversies over the two trade issues. The first dispute, which has been dubbed the "banana war," stems from US complaints that certain EU markets (including the banana market) are unfairly limiting imports from US producers in Central America in favor of imports from former European colonies. When the EU refused to alter its import policies in early 1999, tensions grew. The dispute that has played a greater role in these protests has been labeled the "beef war." In 1989, the EU placed a ban on imports of beef produced with the aid of synthetic growth hormones, a common practice in US cattle raising. After outbreaks of the Creutzfeldt Jakob or "mad cow" disease in 1996, tensions between the EU and the United States came to a head when the World Trade Organization (WTO) issued a controversial ruling in 1997. This decision, made by a three-judge WTO-appointed panel, ruled that not enough scientific evidence existed to justify th e beef ban. The EU did not rescind its policy in response to this finding, but rather countered in May 1999 with findings that at least one type of hormone used in some beef production could cause cancer, while carcinogenic effects from five other hormones could be hypothesized. The WTO held its ground, and the United States responded in July 1999 to both the banana and beef disputes by imposing a high tariff on European luxury goods, including French products such as Roquefort cheese and pate de fois gras.

One month after sanctions were imposed, Jose Bove, the leader of the anti-McDonald's protests in France, explicitly stated that this US tax on luxury goods was a direct motivation for the August 12, 1999, protest in Millau, France that caused US$120,000 worth of damage. The disproportionate economic impact of the US luxury tax on France may explain why reaction was more pronounced in France than elsewhere in the EU.

But the motivation behind these protests lies also in French fears that McDonalds engenders cultural decay in France. Bove expressed these fears: "We have done everything we can to make Roquefort a pure and safe product. The Americans had already doubled the tax on it, and then they arrived on our doorstep, cooking their cheeseburgers. It was too much. We had to go in." Indeed, Bove has become something of an offbeat cultural hero among some culturally defensive French citizens because of his desire to protect the French culinary tradition, a desire expressed in the protesters' chant, "McDo Dehors, Gardons le Roquefort! …

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