Ever since the Renault spy story broke, we had our doubts. It simply did not pass the smell test. Now, the smelly stuff is hitting the fan. “France faced severe political embarrassment on Friday after carmaker Renault said the three top executives it sacked for industrial espionage in January might not be spies after all,” reports Reuters.
In an interview with Le Figaro, Renault COO Patrick Pelata, the man who was the driving force behind the scandal admitted: “A number of elements lead us to doubt.” He is not alone in his doubts.
The scandal may lead to further sackings: Patrick Pelata’s job is on the line. He already announced his readiness to accept the consequences “up to the company’s highest levels — that means as high as myself.”
Despite the attempts of the French intelligence services, no secret bank accounts or any other proof could be connected with the accused.
Also, no signs of “la piste chinoise” (the Chinese angle) that had made the rounds in France and caused a diplomatic row between France and China. Especially after France’s industry minister Eric Bresson accused other countries of waging “economic warfare” against La France.
Bresson didn’t say “China”. There was no need: Everybody, wink-wink, nod-nod, got “China.” Now, even Bresson points fingers at Renault and says that “Patrick Pelata may quit if it turns out that the company made groundless accusations in the recent spying case,” as the Wall Street Journal reports.
Government-owned China Daily today notes with great satisfaction that “French automaker Renault said Friday it might have committed an error in accusing three of its executives of leaking business secrets to some foreign competitors.”
Pelata now says his company has been tricked. China Daily delights in quoting Pelata’s new theories:
“(There are) two hypotheses. Either we are dealing with a case of espionage … or Renault is a victim of manipulation … which could take the form of a scam. In this case, if all doubts are removed, we propose the reintegration of the three senior executives.”
When the story broke in January, “many of Renault’s competitors were puzzled by its claim that three senior executives leaked company secrets from its electric cars program in exchange for payments into their foreign bank accounts,” writes Financial Times. Ian Robertson, BMW’s head of sales said: “We know what they do on electric vehicles. There isn’t a lot of knowledge that’s hot and confidential.” BMW should know, they are in a formal EV joint venture with France’s PSA. There are very few secrets in the polyamorous European car industry.
So what’s the real reason behind le scandale? Financial Times thinks it’s internal infighting:
“Outside Renault, theories are now proliferating about what went wrong.One is that someone inside the company was trying to discredit Mr Ghosn, whose hard-driving style has alienated some staff.”
That angle had come up immediately when the story broke in January. “This may have less to do with foreign attackers than in-house rivalries,” TTAC wrote on Jan 6. According to Der Spiegel, the team around Michel Balthazard, one of the dismissed, had made “disrespectful comments regarding the corporate strategy” of Renault: “EVs harbor many unsolved problems, for which there is not even a hint of a solution.”
Also, the Leaf is not necessarily flying off the shelves. Shortly before the scandal broke, there were ominous supply problems. In December 2010, Nissan recorded 19 Leafs as sold stateside. Nissan sold 87 Leafs in January in the U.S. In February, the Leafs dropped to 67 sold. At home in Japan, the Nissan Leaf is nowhere to be seen on JADA’s list of the 30 top selling cars. Don’t even look for the Leaf in Nissan’s January 2011 production, sales, and export results.
This is the true scandal. Ghosn is betting the farm on EVs, and they aren’t selling. The Pink Panther sequel is just a diversion.