- auto industry - espionage - France - Renault
French intelligence agency to investigate Renault espionage claims
French state prosecutors have asked the country's domestic intelligence service to investigate allegations of industrial espionage targeting French carmaker Renault, in a case that has prompted one cabinet minister to talk of "economic warfare".
REUTERS - French state prosecutors launched an inquiry into industrial espionage at Renault on Friday after the carmaker filed a legal complaint alleging information was passed to a foreign power.
France's domestic intelligence service, DCRI, has now been charged with the investigation.
Renault had lodged a complaint on counts of organised theft, aggravated breach of trust and passing intelligence to a foreign power on Thursday, Paris prosecutor Jean-Claude Marin said earlier.
The judicial move followed the suspension last week of three executives Renault suspects of leaking information about the high-profile electric vehicle programme in which it is investing heavily.
The carmaker said on Thursday it had discovered serious misconduct detrimental to its "strategic, technological and intellectual assets."
Its complaint was against "persons unknown", implying all those involved may not yet have been identified.
Renault did not name the foreign power in its complaint, but did identify foreign private companies, Renault's lawyer Jean Reinhart said on Thursday.
Chief Operating Officer Patrick Pelata has warned of an "organised international network" but said key electric vehicle technology secrets are safe.
France could now be waiting months for clarity on a case that has gripped the country since the executives were suspended. Reinhart told Le Parisien on Friday an investigation of this kind would last at least six months.
France has dubbed the case "economic warfare" and is considering tightening up legislation to protect companies.
The scandal has threatened to harm improving relations between France and China, after a government source said intelligence services were looking into a possible connection with China as part of initial checks before the official probe.
The French government has played down the possibility of a link to China, saying it is not accusing any one country of involvement, while China has denied any link to the case.
Thibault De Montbrial, lawyer for Matthieu Tenenbaum, deputy head of Renault's EV programme and the youngest of the three executives, told Reuters on Friday he did not know the identity or the nationality of the company cited in the complaint.
"I can respond to accusations when they are precise, but I am not going to play guessing games," de Montbrial said. Tenenbaum is "still stunned by the accusations ... but at least things are progressing ... When they ask him questions, at least he will know what the questions are about."
Xavier Thouvenin, the lawyer representing Michel Balthazard, vice president of advance engineering and a management committee member, said his client was waiting for notice of his dismissal, which would likely give more details of the claims against them.
Under French law, Renault had to wait 48 hours to send dismissal letters after the hearing on Tuesday.
"The letter ... must specify 'you have done this and that' ... It's difficult for him, he's been there for 30 years, so it's a bit of a shock," Thouvenin said.