OVER 670,000 people attended France’s annual Agricultural Show in Paris recently. One of them was the president, Emmanuel Macron, who visited on the first day and spent 12 hours at the fair, a presidential record. His stay may have felt even longer. Ahead of the show, farmers had blocked French motorways to protest both against negotiations between the European Union and Mercosur, a South American trade bloc, that could see more beef imported to France, and against French plans to cut subsidies to disadvantaged farms. Mr Macron endured a hostile reception in parts of the showground (though he avoided the fate he suffered last year, when an egg landed on his face). Yet French farmers also had a new target. Why are they so worried about China?

China has been ramping up its presence in the French countryside since the late 2000s. Until recently it was most visible in Bordeaux, where Chinese buyers snapped up tracts of vineyard to try and quench their homeland’s thirst for grands crus. The country now owns about 2% of the region’s chateaux. Then last year it emerged that Keqin Hu, a Chinese billionaire, had managed to pick up more than 2,500 hectares of arable land in two regions better known for grain production. Farmers’ unions have denounced the transactions as covert land-grabs. They are angry about the use of what they regard as a loophole in French law, which normally requires large purchases of farmland to be approved by a state agency. An exemption, which applies when the holding company that owns the land is not purchased in full, has allowed Mr Hu to acquire all but a nominal share of such assets without government approval.

Yet farmers’ fears go beyond the method of the purchases. The exemption has been used before, by British and Dutch buyers, who own much more French farmland than Chinese investors do. What local growers are really afraid of is the deep pockets of the Chinese bidders, some of whom, they suspect, can avail themselves of their country’s state funds. And they think Mr Hu will find ways to circumvent the rules that require cereal producers in France to sell their output to state-vetted trader-stockers, which should in principle make it hard for him to export directly. The billionaire indeed seems to have a plan: he has formed a tie-up with Axereal, France’s biggest grain co-operative, to learn how to bake and ship flour to China. Mr Hu says he is only pursuing a great business opportunity: his country’s growing appetite for baguettes. But locals suspect China is trying to bolster its food security at the expense of France’s.

French farmers want more transparency on land transactions, and improved vetting by the state. Mr Macron seems to have heard them: “We can’t allow hundreds of hectares of land to be bought by foreign powers without us knowing the aims of these purchases,” he said in February. He has since promised to revise the role of Safer, the agency responsible for regulating transactions, as part of an overhaul of rural property law. Yet a proposed reform is not expected before next year and the heated nature of these debates suggest it will require difficult compromises. Despite farmers’ protests, the president is under pressure to avoid an obvious crackdown. Following his visit to Beijing in January, during which he secured the lifting of a 17-year import ban, France is restarting beef exports to China. With tensions about other forms of trade on the rise around the globe, Mr Macron may want to avoid agricultural controversies.