French descend on London in bid to 'seduce' 250 British firms with post-Brexit future on continent

Harry Yorke
The French are coming - to poach businesses from the UK

French politicians and business leaders hosted an event in central London on Friday in an attempt to “seduce” British businesses into relocating to northern France.

Hundreds of regional politicians and business leaders from the Hauts-de-France region entertained representatives from more than 250 businesses operating in the UK.

The event, named “Link Lille,” was organised by the Grand Lille Committee, a consortium in the region's capital city which hopes to attract British commerce across the Channel after Brexit.

This newspaper has also obtained a list of the British businesses invited, which included senior figures from the aviation, financial services, travel and retail industries.

They included senior figures from Ernst & Young, KPMG and Morgan Stanley, who were seen attending the event, hosted at the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel.

Attendees were treated to champagne, wine and a number of cheeses produced in the region, while politicians from the French region gave a number of speeches stressing the benefits of “closer ties”.

The event also included a two hour networking event, in which both British and French business representatives were seen exchanging numbers and details. 

The French delegation included Xavier Bertrand, the president of the Hauts-de-France region, Martine Aubry, the mayor of Lille, and Jean-Pierre Letartre, president of the Link Lille committee.

The event is believed to form part of France’s bid to exploit economic uncertainty during Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, which is centred on targeting multinational companies with headquarters in London.

In a column published in a regional newspaper before the event, Mr Letartre claimed that the aim of the event was to “seduce England”.

He added that their intention was to “deliver a strong message to our English friends:  if you have to leave the European Union, come live and invest in the Hauts-de-France region.”

“We are going to be descending on the St Pancras hotel from the central London station for the day, with the aim of charming our guests and persuading them of the merits of our region,” he continued.

Mr Letartre added that each representative from Hauts-de-France was tasked with establishing a contact with at least one British business at the event.

However, speaking to The Telegraph, Mr Bertrand played down suggestions that the French were trying to lure businesses away from Britain.

"It is for businesses to decide, I am not asking them to leave the UK. I am telling them, we are the only region [in France] to propose a win-win strategy," he said.

"For British companies who want to continue to work with Europe from Europe, the closet Europe is the Hauts-de-France region. It's not an aggressive strategy, it's a win-win strategy for the UK and France.

"We have lots of strengths - the physical location to build on is cheaper. The buildings are a lot cheaper than elsewhere.

"Lille-Londres, it's a lot quicker than London to Manchester, with two hubs - St Pancras and Lille Europe, without forgetting Dover and Calais. "

Mr Bertrand added that that he hoped the Brexit process would lead to a "good deal" and stressed that he did not want Europe to "turn its back on the UK."

"I hope it is still possible for Europe, France and the UK. We have to be clever to allow fluidity for people and trucks. My obsession is business because business, that's people," he said. 

Xavier Bertrand, president of the Hauts-de-France region

"I want to be the spokesman for good relations between France and the UK. Naturally, continental Europe to turn its back on the UK, I don't want this situation.

"I am conscious Brexit is difficult but I think it is an opportunity to strengthen those relations."

The former health  minister has previously hailed Brexit as an opportunity to boost tourism in Calais, and even suggested British visitors would be allow to drive on the left in the port city to make them feel more at home.

He has also praised the UK's proposals for post-Brexit customs controls on the Irish border as an encouraging sign that smooth trade can continue between Calais and Dover.

Martine Aubry, the mayor of Lille, added that the city would become the "new entry point to Europe" after Brexit.

She also hinted that the region was hoping to eventually persuade Japanese firms currently based in the UK, such as Nissan, to choosing Lille as their new headquarters.

"Japanese companies are asking themselves the question, 'we wanted to come to Europe but now are are looking to make a move to mainland Europe'," she said. 

"At the same time London remains in our heart and we don't to give that impression that we would turn out back on the UK, we have very close ties in the UK and want to maintain them."

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