The boss of Renault-Nissan spoke out yesterday for the first time about allegations of industrial spying on his company's rapid advances in electric cars which shook the French-Japanese car giant this month.
Carlos Ghosn said that the espionage concerned the "economic model" of Renault's plans to dominate a $2,000bn world market in electric cars from next year. No specific technical secrets had been leaked, he said.
His comments – contradicting earlier hints that unpatented, technical advances may have been sold to China – will add to the confusion surrounding the Renault spy scandal. Lawyers representing three senior Renault executives, suspended earlier this month, say that there is no evidence they took money for handing over company secrets. They have started counter-actions for "defamation".
Renault-Nissan président-directeur général Mr Ghosn rejected suggestions that Renault had bungled the investigation by approaching a private detective rather than the French security services.
He refused to comment on suggestions - angrily denied by Beijing - that the leaks were inspired by economic interests in China. But he also rejected suggestions in the French press that the whole affair may have been an elaborate dirty-trick, mounted by unknown rivals, to throw doubt on innocent men and sabotage Renault's accelerating electric car programme.
"The target was our whole electric car strategy," he told the Journal du Dimanche. "There was total scepticism when we launched the programme in 2006. Now we are the only company in the world to manufacture, at the same time, electric car engines, the batteries and charging equipment. In an extremely competitive global industry, worth $2,000 billion, we naturally attract the interest of our competitors..."
Renault, with its Japanese partner Nissan, has invested over €4bn in trying to develop new generations of all-electric cars to match the price and performance of internal-combustion vehicles. Several models were unveiled at the Frankfurt motor show last year but the leaked secrets were said to concern a new generation of vehicles expected to enter the market in 2012-13.
According to the French press, they included unpatented advances in electric car engines and batteries.
But Mr Ghosn insisted yesterday that no "technical information" had leaked. The espionage concerned "our economic model", he said. Renault officials told the Journal du Dimanche that this embraced the costs and probable prices of electric cars and batteries, sales forecasts and production targets. Three senior Renault executives were suspended on 5 January. The company has started legal proceedings against "person unknown" for "industrial espionage, corruption, theft, receiving stolen goods and conspiracy".
Renault officials say that the affair began with an anonymous tip-off in a letter last August. A private detective and two company investigators were asked to start an inquiry.
Renault officials and lawyers say they identified off-shore bank accounts in Switzerland and Liechtenstein belonging to the three company executives with payments allegedly divided between the three men.
All three have angrily dismissed the accusations and brought counter-actions for defamation and calumny.