France’s national fast food: What exactly are ‘French tacos’?

If you're from the north American continent, you are probably familiar with the (traditionally Mexican) taco - but in France you will meet 'French tacos', a different beast entirely.

France's national fast food: What exactly are 'French tacos'?
People have lunch at a fast-food restaurant on October 23, 2014 in Villeneuve d'Ascq, northern France. (Photo by PHILIPPE HUGUEN / AFP)

If you walk the streets of any French city or large town, you will likely stumble upon a fast-food restaurant called O’Tacos. But if you are expecting to be able to order a delicious Mexican al pastor taco with salsa verde, you will find yourself sorely disappointed.

As staff writer for the New Yorker, Lauren Collins wrote in 2021, “French tacos are tacos like chicken fingers are fingers”. In fact, one Mexican chef in Paris told Collins that she once had a customer “throw his order in the trash, saying it wasn’t a taco”.

French tacos (always spelled in the plural sense) are a popular and distinct fast food in France, often decried by health experts as highly caloric – an average French tacos clocks in at about 1,348 calories, and an XXL can run up to 2,300, above the recommended daily total caloric intake for an adult woman.

What many imagine when thinking of a taco is the traditional Mexican food, eaten by hand, which consists of a small corn or wheat tortilla filled with meat, beans and/or vegetables, topped with condiments like salsa or guacamole.

In contrast, the French taco is a flour tortilla filled with meat, sauce, and French fries, folded together and grilled to build a panini-burrito-kebab mélange. You can add plenty of other ingredients inside too – from cheese to turkey bacon. Most French tacos are halal-certified to accommodate Muslim customers – so do not contain pork.

The biggest chain is the strangely named O’Tacos – France is home to 300 O’Tacos restaurants – an amount that has doubled in the last five years, as French tacos continue to pick up popularity among the youth.

And you are not limited to O’Tacos for your French taco needs – plenty of smaller fast-food shops and chains across the country, particularly those selling kebabs and those that remain open late into the night – offer French tacos too.

The origins of French tacos

There are various claims regarding the origins of French tacos – or whether there is a single inventor of the fast food at all – but many point to the diverse suburbs of France’s gastronomy capital, Lyon. 

In a documentary by Bastien Gens, titled ‘Tacos Origins’, claimed that French fast food was created toward the end of the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s in Lyon suburbs of Villeurbanne and Vaulx-en-Velin. 

According to Collins, the “earliest innovators of the French tacos were probably snack proprietors of North African descent in the Lyonnais suburbs.

However, some claim that the concept originated in Grenoble first, which is also the site of the first O’Tacos restaurant, opened in 2007 by a former construction worker, Patrick Pelonero, who told Collins he had never visited Mexico but simply enjoyed eating French tacos on his lunch breaks.

Tacos’ popularity 

One thing is certain – French tacos, typically priced around €5.50 are distinctly French.

In an interview with Vanity Fair, Loïc Bienassis, a member of the European Institute of Food History and Cultures, said that: “For decades, France has been an inherently urban, industrial, and culturally diverse country. The French taco is a mutant product of this country. It is its own national junk food.”

In the past few years, French tacos’ popularity has spread beyond the l’Hexagone – to Morocco, Belgium and even the United States.

The sandwich has become so trendy in France that some even refer to traditional Mexican tacos as a “taco mexicain” to differentiate between the two.

In 2021, over 80 million French tacos were consumed in France, making it more popular than the hamburger and the kebab.

In the same year, French youth also took to social media, joining in an O’Tacos challenge #Gigatacos. The goal was to consume a giant French tacos, weighing in at 2kg. Anyone who succeeded would be automatically refunded. Videos of the challenge coursed through French social media networks, with several million views.

While France is known for its classic cuisine, which relies heavily on fresh ingredients, the country also has a history of loving fast food, so it may come as little surprise that it would invent its own highly caloric dish.

As of 2019, France was home to the second biggest market for McDonald’s per head of population after the United States. 

READ MORE: Krispy Kreme, Popeyes, Five Guys: the American fast-food chains taking on France

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How do French Senate elections work?

Senate elections take place in France this week - here's how they work and what French senators actually do.

How do French Senate elections work?

An important election is coming up in France on Sunday, September 24th – although it probably won’t receive heavy media coverage. 

France’s Senate, the upper house of the country’s parliament, will renew half (170) of its 348 seats on Sunday.

However, the general public will not take part in the voting process.

What are ‘indirect’ elections?

Senators are elected ‘indirectly’ – which means that the general public does not choose the candidates or parties, as they would in a direct voting system. Instead, they elect the people who will do the voting.

In France, the voting for senators is up to the country’s grands électeurs (electoral college), which consists of approximately 162,000 elected officials – including elected regional councillors, département councillors, mayors, municipal councillors in larger communes and MPs in the National Assembly. 

Those selected for the electoral college are required to vote, and if they fail to do so they risk a fine of €100. How they vote is entirely up to them (although naturally they tend to vote along party lines). 

Municipal councillors and département councillors made up the majority of delegates (95 percent) of the grands électeurs as of 2023.

The size of the commune determines how many delegates represent it – so for a commune of less than 9,000 inhabitants with a town council of just seven to 11 members, there would be one delegate (member of the electoral college). In contrast, a commune with between 9,000 to 30,000 inhabitants would have all of its municipal councillors (of which there could be between 29 to 35 members) serving as delegates in the electoral college.

How does voting work?

There are two distinct voting methods for electing French senators, and which one is chosen depends on the number of seats to be filled in that département. In départements with one or two senators to be elected, the ‘first-past-the-post’ option is used, meaning voters in the electoral college get to choose a single candidate and the one with the most votes wins.

In départements with three or more senators to be elected, proportional representation lists are used.

In comparison, the lower house of parliament, the Assemblée Nationale, is elected with a direct voting system. The 577 deputés take up five year terms (subject to dissolution).

The different voting methods between the two houses are “to ensure that all the diverse components of French society are represented as fairly as possible.”

The theory being that if your area votes strongly in favour of the centre-left Parti Socialiste then the delegates elected are PS, and they in turn will pick PS senators – so that the overall views of the area are represented in the Senate. 

Senate terms 

Senators are elected to six year terms and are allowed to run for re-election as many times as they like. Many senators serve for a long time – for example, the current president of France’s Senate, Gérald Larcher, was first elected in 1986. 

In the 2020 election, of the 172 renewable seats up for vote, 94 were incumbents, and 78 were newly elected.

How often are they elected?

Senate elections occur every three years, with half of the seats voted on each time. This September, the 170 ‘serie 1’ seats will be voted on. 

You can see where the serie 1 (darker orange) elections are to be held in the map below.

Each département has a different number of senators representing it, which is proportional to the number of constituents who live there – so the city of Paris has 12 senators, the Nord départment 11, and the sparsely-populated département of Lozère just one.

Credit: Senat.Fr

Who are France’s senators?

The average age of senators at the beginning of their term, according to official figures, is 60 years and two months (the minimum age to run is 24).

In total 67 percent (232 senators) are men, with 315 of the 348 officials representing metropolitan France. The remaining 33 represent French overseas territories and departments, and French citizens living abroad. 

The make-up of the delegates tends to over-represent rural areas which means, on the whole, the Senate leans to the centre-right of France’s political spectrum. 

It is usual for the Senate to have a different political mix than the Assemblée Nationale and it has only had a leftist majority once since the foundation of the Fifth Republic in 1958 – for the three-year period between 2011-2014. 

The centre-right Les Républicains party currently holds 145 seats, Parti Socialiste holds 64 seats, and the ‘groupe union centriste’ (a centrist alliance) holds 57 seats.

According to Franceinfo, the party Les Républicains are slated as the favourites to win the most seats during the election on September 24th. Le Figaro wrote that Les Republicains will put up 65 seats during the election, and they hope to maintain at least 60 of those.

What does the Senate do?

The Senate’s job is to review Bills submitted by the government of the day, or by the Assembly. It also watches over the Government to make sure that any enacted laws are implemented properly. Senators can – and do – introduce bills (proposition de loi) of their own, but it is the Assembly that is the real driving force of government.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: How does the French Senate work?

The reason that Senate elections don’t get much media coverage is that the power of the Senate is limited – in cases where the Assemblée nationale and the Senate vote differently, ultimately it is the Assemblée nationale which has the final say. 

The senate does have one particularly crucial role, however – the Senate president would take over as Acting President of the Republic in the event of vacancy, incapacity (or death), or resignation of the president. This has happened twice during the Fifth Republic – both times with the same person. Senate president Alain Poher briefly served as Acting president after the resignation mid-term of Charles de Gaulle and the death in office of Georges Pompidou.

The President of the Senate also has the right to designate three of the nine members of the Constitutional Council, serving for nine years.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: What is France’s Constitutional Council and how does it work?

In terms of compensation, a French senator earns (monthly) €7,493.30, which is made up of a ‘basic parliamentary allowance’ of €5,820.04, a ‘function’ allowance (for other expenses related to the job) of €1,498.66 and a residence allowance of €174.60.