Allegations of industrial espionage at French carmaker Renault have become a matter of state, with an anonymous French government source raising fears that Chinese rivals attempted to steal cutting-edge electric car technology.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s office has asked the country’s intelligence agency to investigate a possible Chinese link in an industrial espionage case that has rattled French carmaker Renault, media reports said on Friday.
Renault confirmed Thursday that it had suspended three top managers suspected of leaking secrets on electric cars, for which Renault and its Japanese partner Nissan have invested at least 4 billion euros in research and development.
The allegations of industrial espionage have quickly become a matter of state, with French Industry Minister Eric Besson claiming the country was the target of "economic war", and ruling UMP party legislators calling for stronger laws to prevent economic information from falling into foreign hands.
According to a Reuters report on Friday, an anonymous government source has confirmed that France’s spy agency is investigating whether the alleged technology leaks at Renault were China-bound. But the same source added that speculation about a Chinese link was not, for now, in any way substantiated. Earlier, French daily Le Figaro cited "several internal sources" at Renault suggesting their company suspected Chinese involvement.
If you can't beat them
Eric Delbecque, a security expert and author of the book "What I know: Economic War", explained that even one leaked industry secret can translate into significant financial profits or losses. “In this highly competitive sector, the car manufacturers are prime targets for information gathering,” Delbecque told France24.com.
While neither Renault nor the French government have as yet uttered any formal accusation, China has already come under sharp criticism among French bloggers for what they describe as its immoral and insatiable tradition of stealing European knowhow.
Another case of industrial espionage linked to China is still fresh in people's minds. In 2007 a Chinese intern at French auto parts maker Valeo was convicted of stealing computer data from the company’s research division. But the French tribunal stopped short of an industrial espionage verdict, instead finding that she had "abused trust".
Yet, the irony in this latest industry spying case is that it comes on the heels of recent claims about France’s own questionable conduct in the matter. According to a document from the US embassy in Berlin that was released by WikiLeaks earlier this week, France is the country that conducts the most industrial espionage in Europe, even ahead of China and Russia.