When China launches the race to buy back French farmland

Is French agriculture in the process of passing under the Chinese flag? According to our information, after the conglomerate Reward Group which bought up nearly 3,000 hectares of agricultural land in France, a second Chinese group appointed a Parisian business law firm in February to negotiate the purchase of wheat fields. in Beauce. Like Reward Group, which owns bakeries in China, this company, whose name has not filtered, is eyeing these lands to produce wheat flour “made in France”. “Chinese flour makers are very sensitive to the reputation of French wheat, confides a good connoisseur of the file. They want to buy this land to sell bread or flour in China with the label: ‘wheat produced in France’”.

This phenomenon dates back to the end of 2014 when, to everyone’s surprise, the Reward Group consortium, a specialist in cleaning and hygiene items, soybeans, powdered milk, but also owner of bakeries in China, bought 1,700 hectares of farmland. in the Indre. “In the space of six months, this company bought five farms, which caused a certain panic, remembers Robert Chaze, president of the chamber of agriculture of Indre. high, which may have prevented local operators from lining up.

And thus opened the door to a certain sinophobia.

Legal loophole

And then the process used surfs on a legal loophole which makes it possible to bypass the blocking power of Safer (land development and rural establishment companies). Reward Group thus acquires 98% of the shares of the companies containing the holding. However, Safer can only act when the transaction concerns the whole of the property. “This deficiency makes the Safer totally powerless in the face of this type of takeover, indicates Philippe Portier, president of the Safer du Center. It is urgent to remedy this shortcoming”. A breach in which, Reward Group again engulfed by buying 900 additional hectares in the Allier in 2017.

Asked by AFP on February 23, the boss of the Chinese consortium, Hu Keqin, holder of a fortune of $ 1.22 billion according to the magazine Forbes, returned to these acquisitions. “We want to make China a market for French-style bread and these lands are at the service of this objective: we have just opened a first store in Beijing and we are targeting 1,500 bakeries throughout the country within five years, offering breads prepared with flour imported from France “he defended himself. Founded in 1995, Reward seeks above all to continue its internationalization by diversifying. As in Romania and Ukraine, where he is eyeing other agricultural land.

Macron goes to the front

In France, Reward also completed two large-scale operations. In the Drôme, it took control, last summer, of a family manufacturer of lavender perfumes and soaps, Le Chatelard 1802. It mainly joined forces with Axéréal, the first cereal cooperative in France. The latter collects its wheat and supplies it with flour “made in France”, as well as its precious bread-making know-how. Enough to ensure the supply of the 1,500 bakeries that Hu Keqin aims to open in China.

These investments by Reward in French agricultural land were however strongly condemned by Emmanuel Macron on February 22 in front of 700 young French farmers gathered at the Elysee Palace. “We cannot allow hundreds of hectares to be bought back by foreign powers without knowing the purpose of these redemptions”, declared the head of state who added that France was going to put in place ” regulatory locks “to these purchases of agricultural land by foreigners. A rather hard position which led the President of the Republic to declare that agricultural land constituted “a strategic investment on which our sovereignty depends”. “In recent years, Bercy has never considered that these buyouts were strategic investments and therefore did not give them great importance, says a ministerial source. With such remarks, the Head of State takes his administration against -foot”.

A new lock

These “regulatory locks” mentioned by Emmanuel Macron should appear in the next law on agriculture that Stéphane Travert will carry in the spring. The text could in particular include a device allowing the Safers to oppose these buybacks of agricultural land by foreign investors. “This will be the subject of a debate in the National Assembly, but given the words of the president, a strengthening of the power of the Safer is more than ever on the agenda” continues the same source. This system could, for example, authorize the Safers to oppose a transaction involving a partial transfer of the property.