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France selling 1,700 buildings to help cut debt

Fancy setting up house in a French government ministry? Or retiring to a royal hunting lodge? Line up now for a supersize sale of 1,700 properties by the French state.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Fancy setting up house in a French government ministry? Or retiring to a royal hunting lodge? Line up now for a supersize sale of 1,700 properties by the French state, seeking to shed dilapidated, expensive-to-maintain buildings and chip away at the country's record-high debt.

Foreigners are welcome to join the bidding, Budget Minister Francois Baroin said in announcing the sell-off Wednesday — but their cash must be clean. Any buyer, whether a movie star, foreign government or ordinary taxpayer, will undergo thorough background checks.

By releasing a long-term list of state properties for sale publicly for the first time, the government appears determined to avoid the kind of controversies and secrecy that dogged some past sales of French property, both public and private, to shady magnates or deposed despots.

The properties in question include chateaux, such as one in Thonon-les-Bains built in 1800 and perched on the shore of Lake Geneva at the foot of the Alps. Another is a royal hunting lodge and guest house built the century before in the Saint-Germain-en-Laye forest west of Paris. "Buildings unoccupied for many years. Needs restoration," reads the government's listing for that property.

'Useless and unadapted buildings'
France, with its historically strong, centralized state, has too much property, Baroin said, disproportionate compared with other countries. The state must get rid of "useless and unadapted buildings." The plan announced Wednesday lays out planned sales from now through the end of 2013.

"Contributing to the reduction of debts" is part of the reason for the sales, Baroin said, though he wouldn't give an overall estimate of the value of the 1,700 properties. And it does not appear that the state's real estate profits will make much of a dent in France's euro1.49 trillion debt, which is worth about 77 percent of the country's gross domestic product, according to the state statistics agency.

Less than 20 percent of the property sale proceeds will go directly to debt payments, with the rest for new government investments. Of the euro3 billion in revenue from sales of state property since 2005, the minister said, just euro427 million went toward the debt.

The sale is part of a larger effort to streamline bureaucracy in a country where more than a third of workers are employed by the state.

A large chunk of the properties for sale belong to the Defense Ministry, which is undergoing a sweeping rehaul to make the military smaller, more modern and technology focused. The Defense Ministry itself is moving to a new facility under construction on the southwest edge of Paris that some dub a "Pentagon a la francaise," after which the old Defense Ministry buildings along the elite, Left Bank artery, Boulevard Saint-Germain, will be sold off.

Local authorities get first dibs on the properties for sale, but if they are not interested, the bidding is open to anyone. All sales will be subject to verification that "the origin of the funds is not likely to pose difficulties regarding anti-money laundering laws," according to materials on the sell-off from the Budget Ministry.

That is a sensitive issue at the moment in France, where Panamanian ex-dictator Manuel Noriega is going on trial this month on charges he laundered cocaine trafficking proceeds via French banks and three Paris apartments bought by his wife in the 1980s.

Anti-corruption groups are awaiting a French appeals court ruling on a lawsuit they filed against the presidents of Gabon, Equatorial Guinea and the Republic of Congo, accused of buying properties in France worth millions of euros that human rights groups say was embezzled from state resources.

The president of one of the groups, Daniel Lebegue of Transparency International France, stressed that the properties involved in the African presidents' case were private, not public.

Verifying the money's origins
He welcomed the government's proposals to verify the origin of any money used to buy state properties.

"If the government had been more proactive in enforcing checks before then we could have avoided a situation whereby these African leaders were able to squander public funds ... in total impunity," he told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

Francis Cahuzac, president of the French Commission for the Protection of Historic and Rural Heritage, said the "copious" government property sale was "a sign that the state no longer had the means to maintain valued property."

"What matters is that the properties are protected, never mind if the owner is a foreigner or the government. In most cases, foreigners are very good at restoring old buildings," he said.

The budget minister, speaking to mayors and legislators at his ministry Wednesday, sought to assuage fears that France, so proud of its culture and history and status as the world's most popular tourist destination, was selling its soul.

"Our goal is not to sell just to sell, without any respect for the future of our heritage," he said.