Renault’s Spy Caper: Industrial Espionage, Or Slick Ruse?

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Is the dramatic mystery surrounding the spy scandal at French carmaker Renault deflating like a particularly gravity-prone soufflé? That seems to be the main conclusion of recent media reports contrasting earlier allegations that China, international espionage rings, and just about any other convenient suspect was behind the purportedly flagrant case of industrial spying. Instead, many stories now suggest the entire caper was a set-up designed to create chaos at Renault (and presumably make it look bad when it cried spook). Though officials stress not all investigations into the affair have been terminated, reports say there’s little or no evidence indicating the three company executive who were accused of passing secrets were involved in any wrong-doing. That means Renault’s management that until recently was calling itself a victim of skullduggery may now have to issue a humiliating “never mind”—and shell out some big time damages to the now libeled and dismissed trio of managers.

Today the daily le Figaro reports people close to the investigation led by France’s main domestic intelligence agency saying “no evidence of espionage” had been found in the Renault inquiry. That follows leaks from government ministries late last week maintaining Renault’s number two official, COO Patrick Pelata, told cabinet members overseeing French industrial interests that the absence of evidence of spying now has the company theorizing “it was the victim of a manipulation”. In other words, lacking any smoking guns (or even hot trails), Plan B is now to assume the group was intentionally fed bad information, was misled by an inefficient or summary internal inquiry, and jumped to conclusions the three execs were guilty before any real proof had been obtained and fully checked out.

Though those three executives have steadfastly maintained their innocence in the scandal and have repeatedly asked to see some solid evidence of their involvement in passing secrets, lawyers for Renault have maintained the company had the goods to prove their culpability. Now, reports say, Renault is hoping against hope that the final stages of a search for hidden bank accounts in Switzerland and Lichtenstein may turn up funds corresponding to payment for secrets passed along. But while Renault officials and intelligence officers stress that no conclusions will be drawn until all inquiries are over, accumulating media reports cite numerous anonymous company executives and government sources saying the entire thing is looking like a trap set for the company.

Perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising, given the evolution of what began as a slam-dunk spy caper into an increasingly speculative theory of what might have happened—or not. The tale began in January, with news the automaker’s cutting-edge electric car division had been the victim of spying by the three top executives. By January 13, the company had filed a court complaint for industrial espionage, citing its own internal investigation that confirmed the illicit activity. That in-house inquiry was generated by an anonymous tip of spy the company received in August, and eventually led to the trio of managers being sacked and identified as traitors in the press. Fears that France’s national champion and greatest hope in the nascent electric car sector had been dealt a crippling blow by the treason set off a media blizzard surrounding the affair. That, in turn, motivated government members and legislators to issue dramatic call for new laws with sufficiently dissuasive bite to deal with what many described as an epidemic of corporate spying targeting French groups. Amid that uproar, all eyes turned on China as the probable beneficiary of the pilfered Renault secrets.

However, that outlook has been changing with time. First off, officials within the French intelligence services called in to investigate the accusations leaked their deep vexation that the company hadn’t come to them sooner. Soon after, Renault said inquiries had uncovered the organizer of the espionage as a shadowy international network—not quite the crisp, clear designation of China French legislators and media had earlier screamed. Then it was learned the information leaked had nothing to do with the top-secret technology and battery development of Renault’s electric car unit, but rather its business plan. Now it appears the entire affair may well be just what some economic intelligence experts had warned all along: an attempt by a rival to inject suspicion and mistrust within Renault’s management, and let the resulting reaction to flesh out traitors create the plot’s objective of sewing disruption, confusion, and division within the company’s highest ranks.