The Renault espionage case is as close as it gets to an automotive “Watergate”. The scandal, which resulted in Renault firing and filing a complaint against three of its top executives for allegedly stealing documents related to the company's EV program, continues to make waves in France.
As it turns out, Renault has started to back down on the accusations, acknowledging the fact that it may have been misled to point the finger on the three executives. In a newspaper interview quoted by the Automotive News, Renault's chief operating officer Patrick Pelata said the company is considering two scenarios.
"Either we are confronted with a case of espionage and a senior security executive is protecting his source despite everything, or Renault is the victim of a manipulation, which we don't know the nature of, but which could be a fraud," said Pelata. "In this case, if all the doubts are lifted, we will propose the reinstatement of the three executives and, in any case, Renault will be very careful to make good any injustice." Pelata stressed that either way, Renault is a victim.
The three employees Renault fired are Michel Balthazard, former vice president of advanced engineering at Renault, his deputy Bertrand Rochette and the former deputy director of the electric vehicles program, Matthieu Tenenbaum. All three claim they have done nothing wrong and are taking legal action against Renault.
The key of the puzzle right now is finding out the identity of the person that tipped off Renault about the three executives. In exchange for the tip, Renault reportedly paid €250,000 ($345,400) to this unnamed source via its two security managers, the only people who know the identity of the company's “Deep Throat”. However, according to French newspapers, they refuse to reveal the person's name to the police.
The case could have serious consequences for Renault - "up to the highest level of the company, that is to say up to myself," said COO Patrick Pelata. Renault risked triggering a diplomatic scandal in January when China was linked as a possible recipient of the leaked information. The company's relationship with the French government has worsened too, with state officials blaming Renault for undertaking its own investigation from August 2010 to January 2011 instead of immediately informing the authorities (the French state owns 15% of Renault). We'll keep you informed as the case develops.
By Dan Mihalascu