Nicolas Sarkozy ordered the country’s intelligence services to establish whether China is behind alleged industrial spying at the car-making giant Renault.
A source at the Elysée palace said secret services were “investigating a Chinese link” in the scandal after the company suspended three senior executives for allegedly committing “very serious faults”.
All three were working on Renault’s high-profile electric car programme and one as a member of the company’s management committee.
If the allegations were confirmed, it would be one of the biggest and most potentially damaging cases of commercial espionage in recent years.
However, one of the accused men, Mathieu Tenenbaum, was reported to be “stunned” by the allegations. His lawyer, Thibault de Montbrial, told AFP that the deputy director of the electric vehicle programme was thrown out of the Renault building “in a matter of minutes with no justification apart from a laconic and enigmatic ‘we know what you have done, you should admit it’.”
The government has warned of an “overall risk” to French industry. Renault is 15% owned by the French state.
Bernard Carayon, an MP for the ruling UMP and a specialist in economic intelligence, said the Chinese connection was being taken seriously. “The suspicions are effectively going that way,” he said.
Renault is France’s biggest car-maker and, with a workforce of 54,300 in France and a total of 122,600 worldwide, is a key player in the country’s economy.
The three suspended staff worked at the Technocentre at Guyancourt, 20 miles from Paris, where company engineers work on coming up with new models.
Renault, and its Japanese partner Nissan, has invested €4bn in developing electric vehicles and plans to put three models on sale this year and a fourth next year. “The group [Renault] is worried about its electric programme and hopes its advance in this technology won’t be threatened,” a source told Le Figaro.
China is promoting ecological vehicles as part of the development of its car industry and its output is expected to reach 1m units by 2020, according to a Beijing official. Vehicle emissions account for 70% of air pollution in major Chinese cities.
A member of the DCRI said French companies had underestimated the potential damage of industrial spying: “This is a classic case of spying. The Chinese are masters of this and they’ve gone on the offensive.”