Chinese tycoon buys French fields with dreams of baguette gold mine

Mr Hu Keqin has over the past four years quietly snapped up 3,000ha of wheat fields in the central Indre and Allier regions in France. The fields may be bare for winter, but he has big dreams: Eventually, they will provide some of the flour for 1,500
Mr Hu Keqin has over the past four years quietly snapped up 3,000ha of wheat fields in the central Indre and Allier regions in France. The fields may be bare for winter, but he has big dreams: Eventually, they will provide some of the flour for 1,500 French bakeries in China, catering to a burgeoning middle class.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Mr Hu Keqin has over the past four years quietly snapped up 3,000ha of wheat fields in the central Indre and Allier regions in France. The fields may be bare for winter, but he has big dreams: Eventually, they will provide some of the flour for 1,500
Mr Hu Keqin (above) has over the past four years quietly snapped up 3,000ha of wheat fields in the central Indre and Allier regions in France. The fields may be bare for winter, but he has big dreams: Eventually, they will provide some of the flour for 1,500 French bakeries in China, catering to a burgeoning middle class.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

THIEL-SUR-ACOLIN (France) • In the peaceful French village of Thiel-sur-Acolin, retired farmer Marc Bernardet is ambivalent about having a Chinese billionaire for a neighbour.

Over the past four years, Mr Hu Keqin has quietly snapped up 3,000ha of wheat fields in the central Indre and Allier regions, including next door to Mr Bernardet.

His purchases are part of a Chinese buying spree in recent years stretching from the United States to Australia. And in France, struggling farmers fear a land grab.

"It's a piece of French heritage that is being taken, but that's globalisation and that's the trend at the moment," Mr Bernardet told Agence France-Presse. "If it wasn't the Chinese, it would be someone else."

The fields may be bare for winter, but Mr Hu has big dreams: Eventually, they will provide some of the flour for 1,500 French bakeries in China, catering to a burgeoning middle class.

But the 57-year-old is keenly aware of the suspicions that his project faces in France, where farmers say their traditional family ownership model is under threat from a huge rise in investor purchases.

"We take extremely good care of our land, and we're using only French people to cultivate it," Mr Hu insisted in an interview in his Beijing office.

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It's a piece of French heritage that is being taken, but that's globalisation and that's the trend at the moment. If it wasn't the Chinese, it would be someone else.

RETIRED FARMER MARC BERNARDET, on Chinese land purchases in France. French farmers say their traditional family ownership model is under threat from a huge rise in investor purchases.

"Many foreign investors are buying land in France," added the understated businessman with a net worth estimated at €1 billion (S$1.63 billion) by Forbes magazine.

He cannily used legal loopholes - buying almost all of each farm rather than the entirety - to skirt rules that can allow the French government to block sales of farmland.

But French President Emmanuel Macron last Thursday vowed to crack down on foreign investors buying up swathes of French land.

"French agricultural lands are strategic investments on which our sovereignty depends," he told a crowd of young farmers at the presidential palace.

"We can't allow hundreds of hectares of land to be bought by foreign powers without us knowing the aims of these purchases."

Mr Hu, who has spent €11 million on land in Allier alone, has stressed that his plan is moving ahead with "solid support" from the French government.

His Reward Group is exploring a slew of tie-ups with French companies which, despite their suspicions, come as welcome news for a government that has prioritised kick-starting the economy.

Bread is rarely served with meals in China, a country of rice and dumplings, and the Chinese bakery scene remains dominated by chains offering filled buns adapted to local tastes.

But Mr Hu is banking on China getting hooked on the crunch of a traditional French baguette as more and more of its middle-class citizens take European holidays.

"I'm counting on the young generation born in the 1980s and 1990s - keen travellers - and on children, but also the older generation whose eating habits are changing," he said.

"The potential is huge."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 27, 2018, with the headline 'Chinese tycoon buys French fields with dreams of baguette gold mine'. Print Edition | Subscribe