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FOOD AND DRINK

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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FRANCE EXPLAINED

July 14th: What to expect from France’s Fête nationale this year

From military parades to fireworks and the arrival of the Olympic torch in Paris, here is what to expect on Bastille Day, or July 14th, this year.

July 14th: What to expect from France's Fête nationale this year

July 14th is the Fête nationale in France, often known as Bastille Day in the anglophone world, which marks the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille in 1789 – the event that symbolises the beginning of the French revolution. 

There are many ways to celebrate, including fireworks displays, traditional parades and the highly popular bals de pompiers, where French firefighters host parties in their station houses.

Normally, July 14th is a public holiday, meaning most workers get a day off, but as it falls on a Sunday this year, there will not be an extra day away from work. 

This year the event comes just a few weeks ahead of the Olympic Games, and it also coincides with the final match of the Euro 2024 tournament, which will take place at 9pm.

Here is what to expect for the 2024 Fête nationale;

Parades

Most towns and cities across France have some sort of event on July 14th.

In Paris, there is a large military parade, with the President in attendance, to mark the event. Normally, this takes place along the Champs-Élysées, but this year it has been moved to Avenue Foch (which runs from the Arc de Triomphe toward the Bois de Vincennes) due to the Olympic Games preparation.

It will take place in the morning of Sunday, July 14th at 9.20am, and it will run until close to noon.

This year, the event will have two themes – the Olympics and the Armed Forces. There will also be a recognition of the 80th anniversary of the Liberation of France. 

As part of the parade, there will also be a flypast with 23 helicopters and 45 planes involved. The first will take place at 10.30am.

Olympic Torch arrival

July 14th will also mark the arrival of the Olympic torch in Paris. It will start off at about 12.50pm from the Champs-Elysées traffic circle.

Afterwards, it will visit several landmarks across the city, including the Luxembourg Gardens, the Île de la Cité, and the Louvre before arriving at the Hôtel de Ville. 

You can see the full schedule on the town hall’s website here.

READ MORE: MAP: Where will the Olympic torch visit on its journey through France?

Fireworks

It’s traditional for towns and cities across France to put on fireworks displays either on the night itself or on July 13th – these happen even in quite small towns so check your local mairie’s website or Facebook page for details.

In Paris, the famous Bastille Day fireworks will still happen at the Eiffel Tower, but there will be no viewing area at the Champ de Mars or Trocadéro this year, as they are undergoing preparations for the Olympic Games.

You can watch the fireworks from different locations in the city or on television on France 2. They will go from 11pm to 11.35pm.

Concert

If you are visiting the capital, there will be a ‘Concert de Paris’ with choir music and an orchestra. This time it will take place at the square in front of the Hôtel de Ville, located in the 4th arrondissement.

According to Radio France, the concert will be free with no need for a reservation.

Many other French towns and cities will be holding concerts too.

Bals de pompier

French firefighters traditionally open up their stations to visitors on the evening July 14th, but this year most will do so on July 13th instead (owing to the fact that July 14th is on a Sunday), and they host the famous bals des pompiers (firemen’s balls).

Some of these events are family-friendly and laid back, while others – especially in Paris and Marseille – are a little more raunchy where les pompiers show off their famously well-honed physiques to an appreciative audience.

Euro final 

Sunday also marks the conclusion of the Euro 2024 football tournament, although since France got knocked out in the semis this won’t be as big an event in France as it might have been. The match kicks off at 9pm and is showing on French free to air channel TF1.

READ MORE: How to watch the Euro 2024 semi-finals on TV in France

Traffic and weather

According to La Chaîne Météo, the weekend could see mixed weather across France, with a possible cold drop, showers and unseasonably low temperatures on Saturday.

As for Sunday, forecasters say that the weather may be unstable in the north and east of the country, with a risk of rain and chilly temperatures. In the south and the west, they expect a return to calmer, drier weather. 

Maximum temperatures may range from 17C in north-east France to 28C near the Mediterranean. Overall, they are expected to stay about 1-2C below seasonal norms.

When it comes to traffic, the most congestion will occur on Saturday.

On Friday, though there will be some slowdowns across the country, and traffic will be most heavy for departures in the upper north-west, with Bison Futé predicting that zone will be ‘red’ for ‘heavy traffic’.

Bison Futé predictions for Friday

On Saturday, departures across the north-west and into parts of central and south-eastern France will also see red-level heavy traffic, with the rest of the country expected to experience moderately more traffic than usual.

Bison Futé predictions for Saturday

As for Sunday, the roads will be mostly clear, with some slowdowns in the Paris area for departures and returns, as well as parts of eastern France for departures.

Bison Futé predictions for Sunday

Closures and operating hours

As the Fête Nationale falls on a Sunday this year, several places will already be closed, such as banks and government offices. Shops may also have reduced opening hours.

Larger chains such as supermarkets, especially in the cities, may be open for part of the day, but may have different or limited opening hours. Bars, cafés, restaurants and tourist attractions should be open as normal.

Politics

Historically, it is not uncommon for the French president to make a speech on July 14th – however France is in a turbulent period right now, so whether Emmanuel Macron will make a speech or not remains to be seen.

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