Renault should stick to carmaking — not sleuthing
By Pierre Briançon
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.
LONDON — There was a funny smell about Renault’s espionage case from the start. In January, the French carmaker fired the top three executives in charge of its electric-car programme, alleging that the trio had taken bribes in an espionage case. Chairman and CEO Carlos Ghosn went on national TV to say it was “serious”. Now it looks like the only damage Renault may have to worry about is self-inflicted.
The carmaker first hinted that spies were after its technology. Then it mysteriously said the programme’s “economic model” was the target. The company claimed that “strategic assets” had been spied upon. Chief operating officer Patrick Pelata called it the “highly professional” work of a “well-organised, international” spy ring. France’s industry minister even said talking about “economic war” in this case was “appropriate”.
Two months on, it looks like Renault based its decisions on an anonymous letter, followed by the botched job of a hired gumshoe detective who has since gone AWOL. The French intelligence service, which was called in to officially investigate the case after harm had been done, doesn’t seem to have found anything — not even a puff of smoke. Pelata now says he will resign if the official report confirms this absence of evidence — probably to spare Ghosn himself.
The damage is already bad enough. Forget the ridicule of corporate paranoia taken to such extremes: companies can survive that type of embarrassment. There’s also no indication so far that the company is as casual with its industrial processes as it is with its investigative procedures, so Renault customers shouldn’t have too much to worry about.
But it looks unlikely that the three fired executives — one of them a member of Renault’s management committee — will ever want to come back. This means that one of the company’s most important strategic programmes has effectively been decapitated. Not to mention the damage the amateur sleuthing will have done to staff morale. At least Renault doesn’t have to worry about anyone spying on its staff-management methods.