Whether it’s for business, study or an exotic retirement, the French are flocking to Asia like never before, drawn by economic opportunities that contrast with debt-ridden Europe.
While Asia has never been as popular a destination for French expatriates as London, their numbers in the East have been growing faster than anywhere else: 11 percent last year including 22 percent in Indonesia and 11.4 percent in China, according to French government figures.
There are now officially 110,000 French expatriates living in the Asia-Pacific region, out of 1.6 million worldwide.
The debt crisis in Europe, average growth in emerging Asian economies of around six percent, and a greater interest in Asian affairs on behalf of students – associated with their stronger command of English – are the main drivers of the shift, analysts said.
“Companies have been coming to Asia for several months or a year looking for the profits that they can no longer find – or not to the extent they did before – in France,” said Mattieu Lefort, director of the French government’s export assistance office, Ubifrance, in Hong Kong.
The French Chamber of Commerce and Industry in China has offices in Beijing and Shanghai, and recently opened a branch in the southwestern city of Chengdu where foreign companies benefit from tax breaks and lower labour costs.
Thomas Portolano, 31, and Michael Amiot, 30, recently moved to Hong Kong from Paris to develop their start-up company, geekasia.com, which offers online imports of Chinese electronic gadgets such as DVDs and video games – “geekeries” in anglicised French slang.
Explaining their move, they cite “fees and taxes” and “legal procedures that take an incredible amount of time” in France, versus China’s free economic zones where business is made easy.
Hong Kong, for example, is a semi-autonomous Chinese territory with its own financial system based on a simple, low-tax regime. There is no capital gains tax, no death duties, no sales tax, salaries are taxed at no more than 15 percent and profits tax is capped at 16.5 percent.
Foreign enterprises can invest freely with no restrictions on ownership or the movement of goods and capital. The former British colony recently signed an agreement with France to prevent double taxation.
“Here there is a general optimism in contrast to the gloomy atmosphere in France,” Amiot said.
Lefort said French entrepreneurs were playing “catch-up” with those from other European countries who were already heavily invested in Asia.
“We’re getting closer to 100,000 French exporters in the world, against 200,000 Italian and 400,000 German. We have been self-centred for a long time,” he said.
After Britain, France’s biggest trade surplus is with Hong Kong, amounting to 3.8 billion euros (US$4.95 billion) last year, according to the French consulate.
Around 700 French-owned companies operate in Hong Kong, employing more than 30,000 people and generating annual revenue of more than seven billion euros.
India is another emerging economic power but its notoriously slow bureaucracy and protectionist policies have proven unsavoury for the French, whose population in the South Asian giant grew 6.6 percent to a meagre 9,600 last year, mostly in the former French colony of Puducherry on the country’s east coast.
Thailand and Indonesia have other attractions for the French besides business – namely the pleasures of an easy lifestyle in the tropics.
“People come for personal reasons,” said Boudet Lucas, executive director of the Franco-Thai Chamber of Commerce in Bangkok.
The French population of Thailand was 28,550 last year, a rise of 15 percent since 2007.
Bali has recorded an influx of retirees seeking a life “less expensive than in France,” Consul Raphael Devianne said.
“The cost of living is nothing like that of France,” said Claudie Courot, 63, who has lived on the island for three years with her 65-year-old husband, Guy.
“There is no property tax, no local taxes. We have a big spacious house surrounded by ricefields, in peace and quiet. And you can have domestic staff.”