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American fast food fad hits France full force

Xavier Potel leaned over his plate, took a deep whiff, smiled approvingly, and said, ''It smells so good.''

Mr. Potel should know. As a critic for the renowned food guide Gault/Millau, he certainly has a refined palate.

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Yet he was not oohing and ahhing over a gourmet's foie gras or any other classical French dish in this restaurant on the Champs Elysees. Instead, he was sitting down to scrambled eggs, hash browns, sausage links, and an English muffin -- at Burger King.

The occasion was Burger King's launching of its American-style breakfast here last week. That Burger King feels confident it can break at least some Frenchmen's habit of eating only a croissant while sipping coffee in the morning shows how far American fast food has come in the past few years in France.

Two years ago there were only 28 fast-food restaurants in France, reports Francoise Louis of Neorestauration, a restaurant trade review. By the end of last year there were 181 outlets.

Mrs. Louis estimates that the fast-food explosion will continue at the same pace through the decade. By 1990 there may be 1,000 such restaurants.

The fast-food boom is a result of changing meal habits among the French, observers say. Traditionally, the country closes up between 1:00 and 3:00 p.m. to enjoy a five-course meal at home.

Even in the cities, where workers often cannot go home for a long lunch, a leisurely meal in a bistro is common -- but evidently not as common as it used to be.

''The rhythm in work has changed here,'' explains Ghislaine d'Antras of Burger King. ''Where everything used to stop for two hours, now lunch breaks are only for 15 or 30 minutes. Fast food satisfies that schedule best.''

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Fast food is also cheaper than the bistro meal. ''A lousy steak and French fries costs $5 there,'' Mrs. d'Antras says. ''Here, a full meal only costs about

Yes -- cheap and quick, Mrs. Louis says. But she adds there is another reason for the success of fast food: It has become fashionable among the young.

''The young kids have taken to it because they adore American pop culture,'' she says. ''To them, fast food is a la mode, a bit snobbish.''

But the French have not just imported the burger; they have adapted fast food to their gastronomic traditions. Fast-food shops such as Free Time and Fun Burger offer gallicized hamburgers and sandwiches with French spices and meats.

Fast-food croissant shops are another French phenomenon. France has nearly 100 of them, Mrs. Louis says. They sell the light, flaky French roll as a small sandwich filled with ham or cheese, or as a sweet snack filled with chocolate or jam.

''We've always had croissants, but the fast-food formula makes them quicker and cheaper,'' says Nicole Dubaile of Mammy Croissant. She says her stores are doing ''very, very well.''

So well, in fact, that she is considering opening a shop in the United States.

''Just as it's a bit snobbish here to have a hamburger, a croissant is a bit snobbish in America,'' Mrs. Louis explains.

Yet resistance remains to fast food in France, especially among the older generation.

One operator remarks, ''Older Frenchmen still have a very real sense of gastronomic imperialism.''

Burger King does not expect its American-style breakfast to sweep the country like the hamburger or croissant -- at least for a while.

''We're just introducing this in Paris, and just now on the Champs Elysees, where there is an international clientele, because it is so new,'' Mrs. d'Antras says.

Over the long term, however, Burger King hopes a growing nutritional emphasis here on eating more in the morning will bring in more business. ''In schools and companies, there is a drive to get people to eat more in the morning,'' Mrs. Louis says.

This logic seems to have convinced Mr. Potel. He liked his first American breakfast and said he would return to Burger King ''because I need something more than bread and coffee early in the morning to get me going.''

He said he likes Burger King's ''whoppers'' even more than its eggs. ''I love them,'' he said.

However, he said he would never entirely substitute hamburgers for French cuisine, explaining that he sympathizes with the traditionalists.

''For them lunch is a real ceremony,'' he said. ''McDonalds or Burger King just doesn't give you that.''

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