French carmaker Renault has suspended three executives, including a management committee member, after discovering that sensitive commercial information has been compromised.
The company suspended the executives on Monday after an "ethical alert" was sent to its compliance committee in August. A source said the company is worried about a possible threat to its flagship electric vehicle programme.
Eric Besson, France's Industry Minister, told RTL radio yesterday: "All I can tell you is that the matter seems serious, that it illustrates once again the risks our companies face in terms of industrial espionage."
"It is an overall risk for French industry," he added. "The expression 'economic warfare', sometimes extreme, is appropriate."
Renault said yesterday that the matter concerned people in "particularly strategic" positions within the company. "This investigation, which has lasted several months, has allowed us to identify an array of related elements showing that the behaviour of these three employees was opposed to Renault's code of ethics, and consciously and deliberately put at risk company assets," Renault said.
The three executives could be dismissed soon if they are found to have leaked information.
Renault, with its Japanese alliance partner Nissan Motor Co Ltd, is a fierce proponent of electric vehicle technology, with the companies jointly investing €4bn in their flagship programmes.
France has for some years been worried about potential attacks on its industrial secrets and even has a "school of economic warfare" – EGE in Paris – aimed at rooting out economic subversion.