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Photographer: Christophe Morin/Bloomberg
Photographer: Christophe Morin/Bloomberg

Macron caught by surprise as France missed Nissan’s mutiny

Renault employs almost 50,000 people in France and the French state owns 15% of the company

Emmanuel Macron had no idea that Nissan Motor Co. was preparing to overthrow Carlos Ghosn.

As Ghosn’s arrest Monday in Tokyo raised questions about Nissan’s alliance with French auto giant Renault, the head of state followed the crisis through the headlines, just like his finance minister and the officials in charge of the state’s stake in Renault, two official with knowledge of the matter said.

They had no warning that trouble was brewing for 64-year-old Ghosn, and more importantly, how that threatened to destabilize the pact between Nissan and Renault, the officials said.

“This is the kind of information that those doing economic intelligence want to know about," Alain Juillet, a former division chief in the French secret service, said in an interview. “The French intelligence didn’t know how things were moving inside Nissan."

While the government was in the dark, concerns were nevertheless growing elsewhere in Paris. One person familiar with the Renault management team said they knew Nissan had long been angered by Ghosn’s abuse of company resources—using the company jet on personal trips and handing his sister a bogus job. That behaviour had been tolerated for years because he was considered so important to the company.

Renault employs almost 50,000 people in France and the French state owns 15% of the company, making it a key plank of Macron’s goal of reviving his country as an economic power.

Renault, in turn, owns 43% of Nissan. The shareholders’ pact gives more weight to Paris than to Tokyo, a long-running source of frustration for the Japanese. Renault is considered a company of “vital importance’ to France by the state secretariat for national security.

Nissan may have been motivated to keep the French out of the loop by their recollections of a bruising power struggle in 2015 when Macron, as economy minister, boosted the government’s stake in Renault without warning Ghosn or the Japanese. That allowed France to thwart Nissan’s efforts to increase its influence at the French carmaker.

Following Ghosn’s ouster, Nissan is again looking to review the shareholding structure of the alliance and wants to create a more balanced partnership.

The clearest sign of France’s ignorance was Macron’s tour of a Renault factory in northern France—alongside Ghosn—less than two weeks ago. That would never have happened if they’d known trouble was coming, one official said.

France doesn’t expect Nissan to make an aggressive move such as a hostile takeover bid and the government doesn’t believe in a plot against Ghosn or French interests, two officials said. One insisted that he wasn’t being naive about the situation. The French state said it it’s open to talks, but it is playing for time all the same.

(This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text. Only the headline has been changed)

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