In France, a tax-free property empire for Qatar

In France, a tax-free property empire for Qatar

PARIS - The Champs-Elysees lures millions of tourists every year to enjoy shopping at the Elysees 26 mall, poker at the Aviation Club, plush cars and futuristic architecture in the Citroen showroom, or feather-clad showgirls at the Lido cabaret.

But for all their Parisian charisma, none of these attractions are French-owned. They belong to the royal family of Qatar, a resource-rich emirate about 3,000 miles (5,000 km) away.

Some Muslims may frown on investments in gambling, alcohol and high-kicking dancers, but over the past few decades the buildings have helped bolster Qatar's global portfolio of trophy assets, including London's Harrods and Singapore's Raffles Hotel.

The latest French addition was a chain of upscale malls under the Printemps banner, bought by a fund controlled by Qatari royals in August for 1.7 billion euros (1.42 billion pounds).

For oil-rich royalty from the Arab Gulf, part of the attraction of the United Kingdom has been the fact it charges no taxes on profits foreign investors make when they sell real estate. Five years ago, Qatar sealed a similar agreement with France.

The treaty was agreed by former centre-right president Nicolas Sarkozy in 2008, and is one of the most generous Qatar has secured, exempting Qatari investors from taxes on the profits they make when they sell properties.

In a country where 3.6 million people lack decent housing, according to Abbe Pierre, a charity, that is controversial.

Politicians, including some in Francois Hollande's new Socialist government, have been critical. In April budget minister Bernard Cazeneuve called the treaty "an exception that we do not wish to duplicate." Others have asked if the accord brings economic benefit to compensate for the lost tax revenue.

The government has said it is examining the treaty, but an official at the French finance ministry told Reuters that Qatar's purchases don't have to be declared, so it is impossible to see how much tax is at stake.

A Reuters examination of regulatory filings, court documents and other data sheds new light on Qatar's property assets. Reuters mapped around 40 properties in France that are owned by Qataris, a total investment of 5.9 billion euros ($7.8 billion) over the past decade, including 4.8 billion since 2008. At current values they would be worth around 6.3 billion euros.

The Qatari state and its sovereign wealth fund own about a dozen of the properties, together worth around 3 billion euros, Reuters found; the rest belong to members of the ruling al-Thani family. A personal fund set up by Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the previous emir, controls about nine of them; his children, including the current emir, six. The rest were bought either by other relatives, or businessmen with strong ties to the al-Thanis, such as Ghanim bin Saad al-Saad.

Each property is owned by a holding company that is itself held by one or more entities, some of them outside France. This makes it hard to track when properties change hands, to see how much tax the French have forgone with the deal.

If there had been no treaty, though, market values at the end of 2012 suggest the French government would have collected at least 145 million euros in tax if the entire portfolio were sold and taxed at the lowest applicable rate, according to Reuters calculations which were assessed by three experts.

While that's less than a day's gas export revenues for Qatar, in France it would equate to a year's pre-tax pay for some 4,500 schoolteachers or nurses.

The Qatari authorities and the sovereign wealth fund Qatari Diar did not respond to questions. Chadia Clot, whose company French Properties Management handles private investments made by the al-Thani family, did not respond.

Gilles Kepel, a professor at the Paris Institute of Political Studies, Paris, said Qatar's financial gains symbolise how the emirate has gained influence by spending its resource wealth, but has also triggered friction.

"Qatar has had a full-speed-ahead investment strategy in France, forged under the previous French administration," said Kepel. "But this has led to antagonism."

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