French ministers call for heads of Renault bosses in spy scandal

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The Independent Online

French ministers and opposition politicians yesterday insisted that Renault bosses must be punished for their "unbelievably amateurish" handling of the phantom industrial espionage saga.

Leading figures in Renault have apologised, and given up bonuses and stock options, after admitting that they hastily fired three executives in January on the basis of what turned out to be bogus accusations of spying.

Two senior French ministers and the leader of the main opposition party said yesterday that the company's handbrake-turn and public apology on Monday were not sufficient. François Baroin, budget minister and official government spokesman, said he was not necessarily calling for heads to roll but "there must be some consequences". "It is inconceivable that an immense company should have stumbled amateurishly into the comic book capers of a third-division manipulation of this kind," he said.

Industry minister, Eric Besson, and the leader of the opposition Socialist Party, Martine Aubry, echoed these comments.

As the largest shareholder in Renault, with 15 per cent of equity, the French government is in a strong position to demand dismissals once an independent investigation is complete. Paris is, however, unwilling to push for the resignation of the company's charismatic president and chief executive, Carlos Ghosn.

Mr Ghosn is also the head of Renault subsidiary Nissan, and Paris is anxious not to disrupt further a company already paralysed by the Japanese earthquake and tsunami.

The French government may demand the head of the company's number two, Patrick Pélata, after the investigation. Mr Ghosn said on television that he had refused Mr Pelata's offer to resign. He said both he and Mr Pélata and other senior executives who had handled the affair had renounced their bonuses for 2010 and stock options for 2011. In Mr Ghosn's case, this amounts to at least €1.6m (£1.4m).

The three executives were publicly and humiliatingly fired in January, accused of taking money to reveal secrets of Renault's market-leading electric car strategy. Company sources said it was feared secrets had been sold to "Chinese interests".

After an investigation by the French counter-intelligence service, the Paris public prosecutor, Jean-Claude Marin, confirmed on Monday that the accusations were "entirely groundless". Investigators believe the initial anonymous letter may have been concocted as part of an elaborate fraud by senior Renault security officer, Dominique Gevrey, who was arrested last Friday and has been formally accused of "conspiracy to defraud".

Investigators believe that just over €300,000 paid by Renault to an anonymous "deep throat" may have been embezzled by Mr Gevrey.

Mr Ghosn said the three fired executives would be compensated and their jobs and "honour" would be restored. Two of the men are ready to return to Renault. The third, and most senior, Michel Balthazard, a former member of Renault's "operating board", says he will not go back.