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Renault braces for backlash in industrial spying case

Text by Sébastian SEIBT

Latest update : 2011-03-05

French car marker Renault's chief operating officer, Patrick Pelata (pictured) has expressed new doubts about claims of industrial espionage that saw three employees fired and became an affair of state.

France’s leading car manufacturer Renault may have falsely believed it was being targeted by spies, the company’s chief operating officer, Patrick Pelata, told a French newspaper on Friday. The announcement added a new twist to an industrial espionage case that has rocked Renault and sparked warnings of an “economic war” from French politicians.

Renault suspended three top managers on January 3, who were suspected of leaking industrial secrets on its electric cars to rival automakers. But in the months following, France’s intelligence agency has not been able to uncover any evidence of Renault’s claims.

In an interview published in the daily Le Figaro, Pelata said he was prepared to accept “all of the consequences” of any possible error and that, if the allegations ultimately proved unfounded, he would “propose the reinstatement of the three executives”.

France’s finance minister, Christine Lagarde, hailed Peralta’s statement as “dignified” and encouraged Renault to “quickly establish the truth, so that confidence is restored”.

Electric cars become a matter of state

Renault’s allegations of industrial espionage quickly become a top concern for the French government, with industry minister Eric Besson claiming the country was the target of an "economic war" and legislators from the ruling Union for a Popular Movement party calling for stronger laws to protect industrial secrets. The French state owns 15 percent of Renault.

After an internal Renault investigation, France’s intelligence service was ordered in early January to investigate if the company’s electric car technology was leaked to rival automakers, possibly in China. The rumours of industrial spying have been rejected by Beijing.

Botched investigation

Soon after the state’s investigation was launched, Le Canard Enchaine, a satirical weekly, called Renault’s spying claims into question. The newspaper reported that the security company hired by Renault botched the initial internal probe and had to dismiss the person in charge of the case.

Nevertheless, in a televised statement on Jan. 23, Renault CEO Carlos Ghosn said he was certain that the three dismissed employees – Michel Balthazard, Bertrand Rochette and Mathieu Tenenbaum – were guilty.

A few days later, Le Canard Enchaine reported that Renault had no written record of the damning evidence. The only report, the weekly said, had been communicated to Renault by telephone.

While observers say Renault is bracing for a backlash from the case, apologies may not be enough for the former managers. All three are suing Renault over the allegations. According to the business daily Les Echos, Bertrand Rochette is asking for €2 million in compensation.

Date created : 2011-03-04

  • AUTO INDUSTRY

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