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 per cent last year, including 22 per cent in Indonesia and 11.4 per cent in China, according to French government figures.
There are now officially 110,000 French expatriates living in Asia-Pacific, out of 1.6 million worldwide.
The debt crisis in Europe, average growth in emerging Asian economies of about 6 per cent, 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 south-western 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, and no sales tax, while salaries are taxed at no more than 15 per cent and profits tax is capped at 16.5 per cent.
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.