PARIS // France has embarked on an unprecedented sell-off of state-owned properties, ranging from an elegant 18th century hunting lodge to a woodland retreat with no electricity, in the hope of raising money to reduce the national debt. Although not exactly a sale of family silver, the initiative involves the disposal of many prime assets among the 1,700 properties for which offers are being invited.
Stylish office blocks, functional government buildings and military barracks also feature in the sale. France's budget minister Francois Baroin says the country has a high proportion of state property and needs to dispose of "useless and unadapted" buildings for which the government no longer has any need. Mr Baroin told a news conference in Paris that up to a fifth of the proceeds of sales would go towards cutting France's £114 billion (Dh630.4bn) debt, which is predicted to grow in the coming months. The rest will be devoted to new state investment projects.
Ministry officials would not put a figure on the amount the government hopes to raise, but the size, location and, in some cases, prestige of the properties suggest that their aggregate value could run into billions of euros. France has never previously attempted to dispose of unwanted state assets on such a scale, though individual sales of government property have yielded £2.5bn in the past four years.
An obvious highlight of the list of properties placed on the market is the hunting lodge at La Muette in the forest of Saint-Germain-en-Laye outside Paris. Built in 1775 for Louis XV on the ruins of an earlier royal castle, it was declared a national historic monument in 1921, and was run by the French forestry authorities. Guy Hibbert, from the British-based French property experts FrenchEntree, said the property - which is in need of renovation according to French documents - was probably worth up to £10 million or "double that once restored", its value enhanced by its links to the French royal family and its closeness to Versailles.Mr Hibbert said a chateau offered in Thonon-les-Bains, by Lake Geneva in the French Alps, could fetch as much as £16m because of its "fabulous lakeside location", gardens and private port.
There are two properties for sale in the smart 7th arrondissement of Paris: a 1920-built, three-storey town house, converted to offices, in the rue de Bourgogne and a five-storey building near the Invalides, currently used by the government but due to be vacated by October. In the north-eastern city of Metz, a late 19th century office building is offered with a feature that would seem attractive with most town centre premises: 36 parking spaces.
A spacious woodland residence, converted from two original properties, is located in a natural park in the eastern département of Haute Soane, described in tourist guides as the gateway to the Vosges and Jura mountains, Burgundy and Alsace. Mr Baroin said the government was determined to achieve market values for all the properties. France has been criticised for taking a relatively relaxed approach to the debt crisis affecting Europe.
The government talks about the need for budgetary restraint but some analysts claim it has been slow to put its words into action. The president, Nicolas Sarkozy, and his government are acutely aware that the unions and in particular public sector workers, already angered by proposals to change France's generous pensions system, would react angrily to further austerity measures. France is not the first European country to consider selling off valuable property assets. The defeated Labour government in the UK launched a review in 2007 of Britain's needs abroad, leading to speculation that embassy and consulate buildings occupying sought-after land would be sold.
One building reported then to be facing possible sale was the British embassy in Paris, next to the Elysée Palace in the chic Rue du Faubourg St Honoré. With its fabulous building and gardens, a short walk from the Place de la Concorde and the Champs-Elysées, the embassy is seen as one of the finest locations in central Paris and property experts talk of a theoretical asking price of at least £54m.
The British Embassy in Washington was also mentioned in speculation about the possible sale of UK overseas assets. However, there has been no subsequent suggestion that a sale involving either site is imminent, or that the new Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition favours their disposal. Of the French properties due to be sold, 28 per cent are office buildings and about two per cent are located in Paris. The government hopes the programme of disposal will be complete by 2013.