Why is McDonald’s suing Florence, Italy?

The mayor of Florence, center-left Dario Nardella, says the city was within its rights to reject the proposal in the name of historic preservation.

Clarissa Cavalheiro/Reuters
The Piazza del Duomo cathedral complex, including the bell tower and a Baptistery, are part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, seen here July 16, 2012.

McDonald’s is filing a lawsuit against the city of Florence after the historic Italian city rejected an application for a restaurant in its historic Piazza del Duomo, home to Brunelleschi's Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral and one of the most visited destinations in Italy. 

Claiming discrimination, the fast food mega-chain is suing the city for 18 million euros (about $10 million) – the revenue the company estimates will be lost over the next 18 years. Meanwhile, the mayor of Florence, the center-left Dario Nardella, is maintaining his position that the city was within its rights to reject the proposal in the name of historic preservation.

"McDonald's has the right to submit an application, because this is permitted under the law, but we also have the right to say no," Mayor Nardella told the city council. Another council in charge of maintaining the city’s ancient center also rejected the proposal a month later.

Italy’s first McDonald’s opened near Rome’s famous Spanish Steps in 1986 and since then dozens have sprung up along the peninsula.

But recently, the American restaurant chain has experienced more pushback from the Mediterranean nation. Earlier this year, cardinals fought efforts to open a restaurant in Rome near the Vatican’s Saint Peter’s Square. A McDonald’s in the area would be "by no means respectful of the architectural tradition of one of the most characteristic squares which look onto the colonnade of Saint Peter’s," said Cardinal Elio Sgreccia in a statement

The fast food chain has faced many challenges integrating its brand into historic and sacred corners of the world. In China, there was outrage when the chain opened outside a historic villa in the city of Hangzhou that once housed prominent leaders. Similarly, Paris pushed back when a trade deal threatened to bring McDonald's to the Rue Montorgueil, which for more than 800 years was a covered food market that carries a significant culinary legacy.

However, the disputes often do not end in a hard "No," but with a compromise worked out between the company and city regarding menu items, cleanliness, litter control, and architectural continuity.

Afraid of an onslaught of fast food chains catering to the city’s increasing number of backpacking travelers, Florence introduce a rule that restaurants along the historic Piazza del Duomo must use “typical products” – traditional Tuscan ingredients – in order to keep a certain level of authenticity in the city’s central square.

In the lawsuit, McDonald’s argues that it fit its business model to these requirements, including plans "to introduce typical local products in our offer, as requested from the local commerce regulation." 

When its application was still rejected, the company sued in Italy's administrative court, which moderates government disputes. 

"We completely agree that the cultural and artistic heritage and the Italian historical town centers have to be protected and guaranteed, as well as the traditions and the historical small shops, but we cannot accept discriminatory regulations that damage the freedom of private initiative without being advantageous to anyone," McDonald's told the BBC.

Meanwhile, Florence has held its stance that it has the right to decline such applications and that doing so was not done as an act of discrimination.

"We don't have any prejudice" against McDonald's, Nardella told the city council.

The mayor added that the chain has other locations elsewhere in the city, including locations near the Santa Maria Novella transportation hub and another near the Galleria dell' Accademia, where tourists flock to see Michelangelo’s famous David statue.

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