Chinese billionaire sees baguette goldmine in French fields

Chinese waitresses work in a Chinese bakery “Chez Blandine,” belonging to the Chinese billionaire Hu Keqin, in Beijing. China, eager for lands abroad, is now interested in French wheat. A discreet billionaire, Hu Keqin, bought farms in Indre and Allier. He has just opened a first bakery in a chic Beijing complex and does not intend to stop there. (AFP)
Updated 25 February 2018
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Chinese billionaire sees baguette goldmine in French fields

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 neighbor.
Over the past four years Hu Keqin has quietly snapped up 3,000 hectares of wheat fields in the central Indre and Allier regions, including next door to Bernardet.
His purchases are part of a Chinese buying-spree in recent years stretching from the US to Australia. And in France, struggling farmers fear a landgrab.
“It’s a piece of French heritage that is being taken, but that’s globalization and that’s the trend at the moment,” Bernardet told AFP.
“If it wasn’t the Chinese, it would be someone else.”
The fields may be bare for winter, but Hu has big dreams: Eventually they’ll provide some of the flour for 1,500 French bakeries in China, catering to a burgeoning middle class.
But he is keenly aware of the suspicions 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,” the 57-year-old insisted in an interview at his Beijing offices.
“Many foreign investors are buying land in France,” added the understated businessman with a net worth estimated at $1.22 billion (€1 billion) by Forbes magazine.
“Are we so different from the Germans or the English? Shouldn’t we, like the others, encourage the local economy to develop?“
Hu 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 President Emmanuel Macron on 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.”
Hu, who has spent €11 million on land in Allier alone, 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 firms which, despite their suspicions, come as welcome news for a government that has prioritized kickstarting the economy.
Central to Hu’s plans to conquer China with baguettes is a partnership with France’s biggest cereal cooperative Axereal to supply flour as well as bread-making know-how.
And that’s just one of several potential French deals for Reward, which since 1995 has built an empire of everything from cleaning products to powdered milk.
It is exploring a possible import deal with Bel, the maker of Laughing Cow cheese, and France’s biggest meat producer Bigard ahead of the lifting of an embargo on French beef.
Reward took control last summer of a lavender soap maker in the south of France, Le Chatelard 1802, and has held further talks with a bakery chain, grain processor and soy company.
As it looks to diversify and grow its foreign assets, the conglomerate is also eyeing land in Romania and has bought a US cosmetics factory.
As far as the bakeries are concerned, having ingredients imported from France is particularly reassuring for Chinese consumers after a series of food scandals.
The first, Chez Blandine, just opened in a chic Beijing shopping center designed by star architect Zaha Hadid.
Bread is rarely served with meals in a country of rice and dumplings, and the Chinese bakery scene remains dominated by chains offering filled buns adapted to local tastes.
But Hu is banking on China getting hooked on the crunch of a traditional French baguette as more and more of its middle classes take European holidays.
“I’m counting on the young generation born in the 1980s and 1990s — keen travelers — and on children, but also the older generation whose eating habits are changing,” he said.
“The potential is huge.”


Oil prices rise on Iran sanctions worries, decline in Venezuelan output

Updated 9 min 26 sec ago
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Oil prices rise on Iran sanctions worries, decline in Venezuelan output

SINGAPORE: Oil prices rose on Thursday, supported by expectations the United States will re-impose sanctions against Iran, a decline in output in Venezuela and ongoing strong demand.
Brent crude oil futures were at 74.27 per barrel at 0643 GMT, up 27 cents, or 0.4 percent, from their last close.
US West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude futures were up 14 cents, or 0.2 percent, at $68.19 per barrel.
Traders said markets climbed on expectations that the United States will in May re-impose sanctions against Iran, a major oil producer and member of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).
French President Emmanuel Macron said on Wednesday that he expected US President Donald Trump to pull out of a deal with Iran reached in 2015, in which Iran suspended its nuclear program in return for western powers lifting crippling sanctions.
Trump will decide by May 12 whether to restore US sanctions on Tehran, which would likely result in a reduction of its oil exports.
Further pushing oil prices has been declining output in Venezuela, OPEC’s biggest producer in Latin America.
Venezuela’s crude production has fallen from almost 2.5 million barrels per day (bpd) in early 2016 to around 1.5 million bpd due to political and economic turmoil.
US oil major Chevron Corp. has evacuated executives from Venezuela after two of its workers were imprisoned over a contract dispute with state-owned oil company PDVSA.
Venezuela’s plunging output and looming US sanctions against Iran come against a backdrop of strong demand, especially in Asia, the world’s biggest oil consuming region.
However, not all market indicators point toward tighter supplies.
US crude oil inventories rose by 2.2 million barrels in the week to April 20, to 429.74 million barrels. That’s almost 10 million barrels above the five-year average.
US crude production climbed by 46,000 barrels per day (bpd) on the previous week, to 10.59 bpd. That’s an increase of more than a quarter since mid-2016.
American crude oil output has overtaken that of top exporter Saudi Arabia. Only Russia currently produces more, at around 11 million bpd.
The soaring US output has made WTI crude around $6 per barrel cheaper than Brent, the international benchmark for oil prices.
Dutch bank ING said “the wide discount for WTI to Brent saw exports rising 582,000 bpd week-on-week to a record high of 2.33 million bpd.”
With US output and exports surging, some analysts warn that the 20-percent climb in Brent prices since February is starting to look overdone.
“The market does look a little toppish,” said Greg McKenna, chief market strategist at futures brokerage AxiTrader.