Allegations of top-level industrial espionage at the French car company Renault, which stunned the motoring world in January, were nothing more than a malevolent hoax, counter-intelligence agents now believe.
An investigation by the Central Directorate of Interior Intelligence, (DCRI) – the French equivalent of MI5 – has found no evidence that three senior Renault executives received money from foreign interests to leak details of the car giant's electric vehicles programme.
The security service has told the government it believes the affair may have been inspired by malicious whistleblowing and internal jealousies and rivalries. What began as one of the most serious industrial spying cases of recent times will probably end, one security source said, as "an argument before an employment tribunal".
Renault's lawyer insisted yesterday that the spying investigation was still alive and that the serious allegations against three executives who were fired in January had not been withdrawn. But, after a meeting between the prime minister's office and company's second-in-command, government sources said that at least two of the executives, and possibly all three, appeared to be entirely innocent.
The affair is an embarrassment for Renault and its president, Carlos Ghosn, who twice angrily dismissed suggestions that his company had made a mistake. He insisted there was "factual evidence" that the executives had been paid to reveal details of Renault's "commercial strategy" for electric cars, but not its technical secrets.
Renault was criticised by politicians from for entrusting a preliminary inquiry last summer to a junior and unknown private investigator. All three of the fired executives insisted from the outset that they were the victims of an enormous blunder or a deliberate "manipulation".
The DCRI told the media yesterday that it had investigated reports of secret bank accounts in Liechtenstein and Switzerland and found nothing. The account numbers passed on by Renault turned out not to exist, DCRI sources told the AFP news agency. Inquiries uncovered no evidence that the three executive had received any money from outside sources or that any secrets had been leaked.
Jean Reinhart, Renault's lawyer, said the investigation was still going on. "I refute the term manipulation," he added. "We have no information that leads us ... to say that the scenario of espionage does not exist."
Bertrand Rochette, one of the three accused executives, said he and his colleagues had been vindicated and it was time for Renault to "stop acting like a victim" and admit it had made an enormous mistake. "I am disgusted with Renault's behaviour," he said. "They have dragged us in the mud before the entire world. The whole thing was based on anonymous accusations. We were fired for no specific reason. This is not something that can just be tidied away and forgotten."
If the spying accusations do turn out be groundless, Mr Ghosn's position may be untenable, newspapers suggested. His handling of the affair – especially Renatult's decision to investigate privately after the initial tip-off and not call in the security services – has been much criticised. When he was challenged in late January, he insisted Renault had "factual elements" that indicated the "gravity of this affair".
"The target was our whole electric car strategy," he said. "In an extremely competitive global industry we naturally attract the interest of our competitors ... From 2012, we will be by far the world's biggest producer of electric cars."