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.”


Palestinians in financial crisis after Israel, US moves

Updated 22 March 2019
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Palestinians in financial crisis after Israel, US moves

  • A Ramallah-based economics professor said the Palestinian economy more generally, remain totally controlled by and reliant on Israel
  • Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts have been at a standstill since 2014

RAMALLAH, Palestinian Territories: The Palestinian Authority faces a suffocating financial crisis after deep US aid cuts and an Israeli move to withhold tax transfers, sparking fears for the stability of the West Bank.
The authority, headed by President Mahmud Abbas, announced a package of emergency measures on March 10, including halving the salaries of many civil servants.
The United States has cut more than $500 million in Palestinian aid in the last year, though only a fraction of that went directly to the PA.
The PA has decided to refuse what little US aid remains on offer for fear of civil suits under new legislation passed by Congress.
Israel has also announced it intends to deduct around $10 million a month in taxes it collects for the PA in a dispute over payments to the families of prisoners in Israeli jails.
In response, Abbas has refused to receive any funds at all, labelling the Israeli reductions theft.
That will leave his government with a monthly shortfall of around $190 million for the length of the crisis.
The money makes up more than 50 percent of the PA’s monthly revenues, with other funds coming from local taxes and foreign aid.

While the impact of the cuts is still being assessed, analysts fear it could affect the stability of the occupied West Bank.
“If the economic situation remains so difficult and the PA is unable to pay salaries and provide services, in addition to continuing (Israeli) settlement expansion it will lead to an explosion,” political analyst Jihad Harb said.
Abbas cut off relations with the US administration after President Donald Trump declared the disputed city of Jerusalem Israel’s capital in December 2017.
The right-wing Israeli government, strongly backed by the US, has since sought to squeeze Abbas.
After a deadly anti-Israeli attack last month, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he would withhold $138 million (123 million euros) in Palestinian revenues over the course of a year.
Israel collects around $190 million a month in customs duties levied on goods destined for Palestinian markets that transit through its ports, and then transfers the money to the PA.
Israel said the amount it intended to withhold was equal to what is paid by the PA to the families of prisoners, or prisoners themselves, jailed for attacks on Israelis last year.
Many Palestinians view prisoners and those killed while carrying out attacks as heroes of the fight against Israeli occupation.
Israel says the payments encourage further violence.
Abbas recently accused Netanyahu’s government of causing a “crippling economic crisis in the Palestinian Authority.”
The PA also said in January it would refuse all further US government aid for fear of lawsuits under new US legislation targeting alleged support for “terrorism.”

Finance Minister Shukri Bishara announced earlier this month he had been forced to “adopt an emergency budget that includes restricted austerity measures.”
Government employees paid over 2,000 shekels ($555) will receive only half their salaries until further notice.
Prisoner payments would continue in full, Bishara added.
Nasser Abdel Karim, a Ramallah-based economics professor, told AFP the PA, and the Palestinian economy more generally, remain totally controlled by and reliant on Israel.
The PA undertook similar financial measures in 2012 when Israel withheld taxes over Palestinian efforts to gain international recognition at the United Nations.
Abdel Karim said such crises are “repeated and disappear according to the development of the relationship between the Palestinian Authority and Israel or the countries that support (the PA).”
Israel occupied the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including now annexed east Jerusalem in the Six-Day War of 1967 and Abbas’s government has only limited autonomy in West Bank towns and cities.
“The problem is the lack of cash,” economic journalist Jafar Sadaqa told AFP.
He said that while the PA had faced financial crises before, “this time is different because it comes as a cumulative result of political decisions taken by the United States.”
Abbas appointed longtime ally Mohammad Shtayyeh as prime minister on March 10 to head a new government to oversee the crisis.
Abdel Karim believes the crisis could worsen after an Israeli general election next month “if a more right-wing Israeli government wins.”
Netanyahu’s outgoing government is already regarded as the most right-wing in Israel’s history but on April 9 parties even further to the right have a realistic chance of winning seats in parliament for the first time.
Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts have been at a standstill since 2014, when a drive for a deal by the administration of President Barack Obama collapsed in the face of persistent Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank.