February 22, 2018 / 5:08 PM / in 3 months

Macron pledges to protect French farmland from foreign buyers

* President says will tighten curbs on foreign investors

* Reacts to debate over deals attributed to Chinese group

* Macron hosts young farmers in gesture before Paris show

PARIS, Feb 22 (Reuters) - France will clamp down on farmland purchases by foreign buyers, President Emmanuel Macron said on Thursday, responding to a controversy over deals attributed to a Chinese firm.

While Chinese investors have acquired a number of wine estates and formed partnerships with dairy companies in France, the purchase of 2,600 hectares of cropland in central France over the past two years has hit a nerve in the European Union’s biggest agricultural producer.

Speaking to a gathering of young farmers at the Elysee presidential palace, Macron said farmland was a matter of sovereignty.

“We cannot let hundreds of hectares be bought up by foreign powers without knowing what the aim of these purchases is,” he said. “We are therefore clearly going to put in place regulatory safeguards in this area.”

Macron did not specify which investments he was referring to but French farming groups and media have cited Chinese fuel services group Hongyang as the buyer of the land acquired in 2016 and 2017.

The previous government of Francois Hollande tried to increase oversight of land sales after the first of the cropland deals in 2016 showed a loophole in vetting of farmland sales, but the move was blocked by France’s constitutional court.

Hongyang could not be immediately reached for comment.

Macron said access to land for young French farmers was a vital issue as the country faced the prospect of 40 percent of today’s farmers retiring by 2020.

The president organised Thursday’s reception in a gesture to the farming world ahead of the annual Paris farm show this weekend, and as the government faces discontent among farmers over issues including trade talks with South American countries. (Reporting by Gus Trompiz and Marine Pennetier, editing by David Evans)

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