“There is nothing more dangerous than capitalism – it’s insatiable,” says Fati Bouarua. “We have seen that marching and screaming in the street is not enough, and so we need to make social alternatives that cannot be crushed by capital. And we have no fears, only determination.”
Bouarua is an eloquent and passionate activist of Algerian descent, who grew up in the most neglected neighbourhoods of Marseille. As one of the main organisers of L’Apres M – a squatted McDonald’s that he has helped to transform into a major food bank in the stark Sainte-Marthe neighbourhood of north Marseille – he becomes increasingly emboldened as he describes the vision of it becoming a radical new socialist restaurant to serve this impoverished community.
Having spent a lifetime working on social causes and organising volunteers, the symbolism of requisitioning a multinational fast-food drive-in to help feed over 2,000 families a week is not lost on him.
“When the first lockdown struck, people were more worried about dying of starvation than COVID around here,” he says. “Everything was closed down, even charities and social help. People were left to fend for themselves. With or without papers – they had nothing.”
Walking north from the centre of Marseille, it is hard to ignore how France’s second city unravels into a fully functioning dystopia of faded pastel-coloured tower blocks, where immigrants are forced to live within concrete slabs. Where Syrian refugees scrawl pleading messages on cardboard signs and place their hands, palms up, through car windows at traffic lights.
“When McDonald’s decided to close down this branch, the only other place offering work was the local hypermarket,” Bouarua explains. “It was too much for people to accept.”
Located between the predominantly Muslim neighbourhoods of Saint-Marthe and Saint-Barthélémy, it was the first McDonald’s in the country to be built in the poverty-stricken suburbs that exist around France’s major cities. Bolstered heavily by government funding, it opened in 1992 and eventually came to employ 77 locals on unusually lengthy and protected contracts.
The restaurant not only offered some immediate relief to the mass unemployment young people were facing, but gave locals the dignity of having somewhere to eat out. It was, literally, all they had. Once the government withdrew its initiatives, in 2018 McDonald’s decided to close it down, to the despair of the staff and the local community.
Led by the manager, Kamel Guemari – now the de facto leader of this movement – the restaurant was emptied, but its employees did not wish to go quietly. With no intention of hurting anyone, Guemari doused himself in petrol and threatened to set himself on fire unless its closure was halted and all 77 employees were guaranteed their livelihoods. Identifying his place of work as one of diversity, which gave hope to the marginalised, Guemari’s statement was an anguished defence against a perceived attack on the population of the northern quarters themselves.
His actions could not halt its closure, and it lay dormant until the first lockdown last March. With the help of a powerful social media campaign, Guemari and the other employees – working alongside artists and hard-left activists – began to raise funds for the building they had taken over for the benefit of those around them.
With the letters from the signage swapped and turned upside down to spell “L’Apres M” (The After M), it became a beacon for good: farmers dropped off fruit and vegetables rather than watch them go to waste; shops offered food, and locals donated funds to bolster this burgeoning movement. In the first five weeks after it opened, no less than 100,000 people were served food parcels.
“We are on our way to 50,000 people donating €25 (£21.50) each,” says Bouarua, proudly. “The local mayor has so far promised that the town hall will make a compulsory purchase of the building and its land, which we then wish to either buy from them or to take on a long-term lease. We have also started a company called Le Part Du Peuple (The People’s Share). Everyone who donates owns a share, no one is the owner. It’s a company run as a non-profit organisation.
“What we want to do is to create a fast-social-food here, a restaurant where you are handed your menu and the prices are determined from what you earn. If you are a sans papiers [an undocumented migrant] then you can come and eat twice a week for free. Those on minimum wage will only pay €3 per person, and so on – a restaurant on a sliding scale. We will re-employ 37 employees, and the others will be made up of 40 volunteers offering half a day per month of their time to keep the whole thing going. It is a model to not only help the poorest to survive, but to fight back against the victimhood caused by capitalism.”
Some have described this venture as quixotic, but the ideals it espouses are widely shared by people of all ages in Marseille. The city’s deep-rooted resentment towards heavy-handed regulations and social injustice has only been entrenched by endless curfews and the clouds of tear gas the police have fired off to enforce them during the pandemic. It is a city that is deeply proud of its rebellious nature, where you either fight or disappear. But there is a sense that those already frustrated have had enough.
Stepping into the Apres M, however, lends a welcome sense of the surreal: women in burqas stocking box after box of ripe mangos against photos of cheeseburgers and cartoon characters; young men loading gallons of sugary drinks and watermelons into small cars to be driven away by smaller groups handing out food for refugees and the homeless in the city centre; middle-aged French men delivering parcels through the hatch to families from the Maghreb who now live close by.
Apres M is a lifeline for people who have found a way to make a start in Europe – a task that was never going to be easy, let alone during a global pandemic. The commitment to these tasks is palpable.
Before I head back, I ask Bouarua what his fears are for the project. “What we inspire is more important than any result,” he says. “That people together become owners, create jobs, and help others. This is a philosophy of motivation.”