Renault, the leading French car manufacturer, has taken legal action against three of its employees regarding allegations of industrial espionage.
There have been formal letters of termination sent to Michel Balthazard, Bertrand Rochette and Matthieu Tenenbaum. Balthazard and Rochette worked in the Renault Management Committee, particularly on the company’s electric car program. Balthazard supervised Rochette, who have both received the termination notices, while Tenenbaum was the former deputy director of Renault’s electric vehicle program is yet to receive the said letter.
According to Balthazard’s lawyer, Xavier Thouvenin stated “The letter basically says: ‘You received a substantial sum of money from a foreign source, leading us to the conviction that you have given what is probably strategic information in exchange.’ ” He further added, “The word ‘conviction’ is very important (to me). They’re saying: ‘We found out you have money, therefore you must have sold information. But that’s a long way from saying they have proof that he did something wrong.” They plan to sue the company for wrongful dismissal.
The three men were placed under suspension after Renault conducted an investigation that found that secrets of its electric vehicle program were allegedly sold to a third party. From there, the company filed a criminal complaint against all three claiming that they had perpetrated “organized industrial espionage, corruption, breach of trust, theft and concealment.”
The investigation was prompted by an anonymous letter to which investigators found substantial amounts of money were deposited to accounts of the three individuals. All three had access to corporate secrets on Renault’s electric car program and the secrets were supposedly funneled to a Chinese company. All three men deny the charges and proclaim their innocence.
Central to the information leaked were vehicle design, pricing and business plans. The company is still determining whether technological information was also stolen, such as the technology to lower the cost per kilowatt-hour of battery capacity. This alone can make Renault’s electric vehicle program leave the competition in its dust. The company, together with its Japanese partner Nissan, is also about to unveil three new vehicles: a family saloon (the Fluence), a small van (the Kangoo be bop), a supermini-sized hatchback (the Zoe) and the two-seater runabout (the Twizy).
Not only has this case affected the French company. The French government has a 15% stake in Renault and the French Industry Minister, Eric Besson has discussed an “economic war”. He announced that draft legislation is being prepared to protect corporate and technological information of French industry makers in the same manner as defense secrets. The Chinese government has also denied any involvement of the government or any Chinese company in this matter.