President Emmanuel Macron promised measures to help prevent foreign investors buying French farms amid concern that Chinese businesses are taking advantage of low land prices and distressed rural communities.
“For me, French agricultural lands are strategic investments on which our sovereignty depends, so we can’t allow hundreds of hectares of land to be bought by foreign powers without us knowing the aims of these purchases,” Macron told a crowd of young farmers at the presidential palace.
He was referring to news last year that a Chinese fund had bought 900 hectares of land in the cereal-growing Allier region in central France, following an acquisition of 1,700 hectares in the Indre area in 2016.
“We will very obviously put in place regulatory safeguards and will work with you… to put an end to what happened,” he told the farmers, referring to the acquisitions.
Australia announced new restrictions on foreign buyers of agricultural land at the beginning of the month, while concerns about Chinese expansion abroad have been voiced from Africa to Canada in the past. At the end of last year, French rural association Safar urged the government to act against a huge increase in financial investors buying land which it said imperilled France’s traditional family ownership model.
Most of the new financial investors were French, it said, but after the Chinese acquisition last year, farmers’ union FDSEA accused the fund of preying on farmers on the verge of bankruptcy.
Macron was elected last May as a pro-business and pro-trade centrist, but he has also made shielding what he considers France’s strategic economic interests a priority. At the European level, he has argued for new measures to prevent the dumping of cheap job-killing Chinese imports on the EU as well as closer scrutiny of foreign investments in strategic sectors.
In January, Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire said France would broaden a domestic law that already subjects foreign investments in the energy and transport sectors to scrutiny to include purchases in the technology industry.
Helping France’s farmers was another campaign pledge from Macron who wants to force supermarkets to pay them higher prices to raise incomes and help slow a population exodus from rural areas. The 40-year-old leader, a former investment banker painted by critics as a “president for the rich”, is keen to bolster his credentials among voters outside of urban areas where support for him is strongest.
He has proposed an investment plan worth five billion euros ($6.2 billion) over his term which he said would include a new fund worth one billion intended to provide loans to young farmers. “We are going to widen the sources of finance to take into account the changes underway and allow young farmers to start in their profession in the best possible way,” he said.
The farming community remains sceptical, however, and a series of protests have been held nationwide recently over changes to farm subsidy rules and a possible trade deal with South American countries.
French farmers are worried that a deal with the Mercosur bloc of Latin American countries could see up to 70,000 tonnes of tariff-free beef from countries such as Argentina or Brazil flooding Europe. Some campaigners have raised concerns about the use of hormones in these countries which lead to artificially high growth rates in cattle — a practice that is widespread in the United States. “There will never be beef with hormones in it in France. We shouldn’t play with fear,” Macron said. “There will be no reduction in our social, environmental or health standards.”
Macron is likely to face farmers’ wrath at the annual Paris farm show on Saturday which is an obligatory stop for French leaders. Last year, he was hit on the head by an egg launched by a protester.
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