The appearance in France of the first drive-through boulangerie begs the question: Is it one small step for France, or another sign of US cultural hegemony in Europe? The answer is: both.
Will the traditional French bakery go the way of the dinosaurs?
Few people defend their own culture and lifestyle more forcefully than the French, especially when it comes to food. For many, the trip to the bakery to buy their baguette is a daily ritual, often involving a friendly chat with the boulanger, or baker.
But in the nondescript Paris suburb of Marly-le-Roi, the old tradition now has a distinctly American-style competitor.
Anyone watching from the outside as a steady stream of cars pulls into what looks like a disused warehouse would wonder what all those cars were doing there. In fact, the grey building is the Joly Bakery. And the drivers aren’t filling their tanks, they're filling their stomachs.
Please stay seated
Actually, the building used to be a gas station, but there's no longer any diesel or lead-free for sale here. Instead, as in any boulangerie, or bakery, there are sandwiches, desserts and cold drinks. But the difference here is, the customers don't have to get out of their cars to be served.
Drivers stay seated at the wheel of their cars and order at the drive-through window, much as they would at one of the thousands of McDonalds that increasingly pepper the European landscape.
Caroline, who drives up to the window with four rather large dogs in the back of her hatchback, says the time-saving drive-through is a godsend.
"French people are running all the time. Even the moms to get the kids at school. They're always in the car going quick, quick, quick," she said. "I think it’s a very good concept because you don’t have to check for a place, get out the car, stand in the queue for buying bread."
Old habits die hard
But even on the go, the French haven't fallen completely under the sway of American beliefs in "the faster the better" type service. Habits of politesse and "la vie douce" are deeply ingrained. The French like presentation. For the Americans, form definitely follows function.
For example, some customers can’t quite get used to the idea of being served at the wheel of their car, and as long as there’s no long line behind them many still get out of the cars to order. And despite the emphasis on speed, customers and staff still find time to exchange a few friendly words. Also, unlike at the reviled McDonald's drive-through, this counter is open. No speaking into a loudspeaker to a stranger and having your food shoved at you by a surly, anonymous server.
"It’s a mix of American culture and French culture. It’s taking the best of the two cultures," said Jocelyne Joly, who helps run the family business.
"The people are friendly, and chatty .. It’s the same as any other boulangerie, the only difference is they come by car. (For people who) work outside town centers, there are no shops, no boulangeries, and so it’s great if they can drive to buy their lunch," she added.
Part of a larger trend
Indeed, the drive-in boulangerie can be seen as a response to another aspect of the creeping Americanization of Europe: the demise of thriving town centers with numerous small shops in favor of industrial zones on the outskirts full of big-box stores and shopping centers.
In many respects, however, the Boulangerie Joly is typically French. The bread is baked on the premises and delivered by lift to the shop below.
But -- sacre bleu -- isn't there a certain contradiction in the French, of all people, so enthusiastically embracing such an American idea? Multiplex cinemas are one thing, but this concerns what may be the country's last remaining cultural jewel: la cuisine.
The drive in customers -- who, admittedly, have already made their choice -- don't seem to find it a problem.
"Why not make like the Americans? The Americans make good things," said Caroline.
One customer, Philippe, knows a thing or two about American habits, having lived in Pennsylvania once upon a time. He chooses to drive three miles round trip from his office to buy his sandwich while staying seated in his car, because it saves him time and has reduced his lunch break to a lightning fast (in French terms anyway) 40 minutes.
'A nice model'
He sees no problem with blurring the lines between French and American culture in general.
McDonald's restaurant, Munich, Germany, photo 1996/9/19
"We (French) have McDonald-drive-ins, young people listen to American music, American rap," he said. "It’s really an adaptation of an American system into a French system. It’s a nice business model."
The Jolys hope they can expand their business by opening up other drive-ins elsewhere in France. Perhaps surprisingly, there’s been no outcry in the French media at the potential threat to the traditional two-hour lunch. In towns and villages across the country millions of people still walk into bakeries to buy their bread; the drive-in simply provides a new option for those working on industrial estates or on the outskirts of towns.
As Philippe puts it: "We are very quality oriented in France, and as long as the bread is as crunchy and as delicious as in a French boulangerie, I would buy it wherever I find it."