Workers in France seized a McDonald’s and turned it into a food bank

A group of migrants in one of France’s most socio-economically divided cities turned a McDonald’s into a ‘lifeline’ for those in need.

Marseille is known as France’s ‘secret capital city’, located in the southern part of the country.

It contains one of the largest immigrant communities in the country, with most of the immigrants from Morocco and Algeria and people of Muslim heritage.

The reinvented McDonald's now the social and food centre L'après M
Image: Obsev

Constructions of public buildings in north Marseille inevitably meant housing the growing migrant population, which has seen the city divided in two.

The northern side of Marseille is cut-off and deprived and answers to the well-off southern region of the city.

One of the high-rise public housing blocks in the neighbourhood of Saint-Bartélemy contains a McDonald’s at the foot of the building, serving as a hub to the hard-edge of the northern districts.

However, this McDonald’s hadn’t operated since 2018 when the franchise closed the branch, deploying 77 workers.

Sit-ins and strikes over the years were aimed at preventing the sale of what was previously the second-largest employer in the northern Marseille neighbourhoods.

With the coronavirus pandemic, this building’s fate has changed, by becoming a foodbank rebranded ‘L’après M’, a.k.a ‘The After M’.

The beginning of the pandemic in March 2020 saw the group of ex-McDonald’s-employees requisitioning the building and invited a local association to utilise the kitchens for feeding displaced people.

As the months went by, what started as a small project evolved into a partnership, with 47 local associations serving a queue of people from “all walks of life”, encompassing the entire site.

A year on, the food bank sees roughly 1,000 people arriving weekly to collect parcels of free food, including fresh veggies, pantry foods, halal meats and other cooking essentials.

One of the beneficiaries stated:

“This isn’t just a food bank. This is more like a lifeboat.”

Thirty to forty volunteers contribute to this honourable operation, taking turns with different duties each week.

They are the people responsible for transforming an empty, cold industrial space into a vibrant social centre that seems to be serving the people in many more ways than McDonald’s perhaps did.

Hanna Bechiche, who originally reported this story, described the newly socially renovated ‘lifeboat’ as a place where:

“…all doors are open; the place buzzes with activity and corridors echo with laughter. As soon as I enter, I’m greeted with warm welcomes and happily directed to the office, which doubles up as a break room where volunteers gather for coffee and a chat,” she said.

“A to-do list of next steps for L’après M covers one wall of the room, while a candy floss machine, used for a recent kids’ fete, leans against another.”

And even previous beneficiaries now contribute to L’après M by volunteering, such as Ourada, a French-Algerian mother of four who has shown up to help every day since the lockdown of November 2020.

“Do you want to know how [L’après M] began? Well, as a joke. Everything does here. We sit in the break room, we laugh and throw around ideas, and usually there’s one that sticks,” she said.

“Every inch of space is utilised in L’après M. Even the little green verges in the parking lot have been transformed into vegetable patches by Yazid, a French-Algerian volunteer gardener.”

Ourada suspended the jokes when discussing the hardship the northern neighbourhoods faced during the brunt of the COVID-19 crisis.

“Here, people weren’t scared to die of Covid. They were scared to die of hunger. A lot of us, including me, lost our jobs, and this neighbourhood is barely connected to the city centre,” she said.

“There’s only one bus line that goes through the whole northern side. Meanwhile, the southern side has Metro lines, tramway lines, bus lines, and even shuffle boats.” 

“During the first lockdown, volunteers sometimes worked 22 out of 24 hours. If people couldn’t come to us, we’d deliver their weekly parcels of food to them.”

Dozens of trolleys filled with groceries surround the former McDonald’s order counter.

A corner of the previous restaurant area has evolved into a children’s library, while another corner functions as a computer room.

Green verges outside have been transformed into vegetable patches by Yazid, who also uses these verges to teach the children at the social centre how food ends up on their plates.

New interior of the former McDonald's
Image: RTS

The fast-food machines have been glad wrapped to prove to McDonald’s that members of the social centre aren’t using or damaging any equipment.

The covered machines are a physical reminder of the collective’s squatter status on the site, as McDonald’s is refusing to permit L’après M to legally use the empty premises.

“During COVID, I was looking for a food bank that wasn’t closed, or didn’t ask for a thousand [pieces of] paperwork. I couldn’t find any. But people talked about this place, so I came to look,” said a member of the centre.

Members of L'après M conducting their volunteer duties inside the former McDonald's
Image: Bondy Blog

Earlier in July, the city voted in favour of the mayor’s proposition to buy the building for L’après M, and officially turn it into a social corporation owned by whoever wants to buy a share.

Shares are going for only 25 euros, making L’après M owned by the people.

The once small project of L’après M is now designated to become a launchpad not only for the northern neighbourhoods, but unifying all of Marseille.

Kamel, a prominent member of the centre, says:

“We want the north/south divide gone. Everyone is sick of it.”