Two Renault executives sacked on suspicion of leaking information about the carmaker’s electric vehicle programme have vowed to fight their dismissals, as a third heard his fate on Monday.
French state prosecutors launched an inquiry into industrial espionage at the carmaker last Friday after Renault filed a legal complaint alleging information had been passed to a foreign power, without saying which one.
The carmaker had suspended the employees the previous week on suspicion they had leaked information about its high-profile electric car technology.
The French government has dubbed the case “economic warfare”, while Renault has said it was the victim of an “organised international network”.
Michel Balthazard, former vice-president advance engineering at Renault, received his dismissal letter at the weekend, his lawyer Xavier Thouvenin said.
The letter accused Balthazard of passing on strategic information in exchange for bribes, an accusation Balthazard denies “categorically”, Thouvenin said. The lawyer said Balthazard would take the matter to an industrial tribunal.
Bertrand Rochette, who worked as Balthazard’s number two, also received his letter, and said he was determined to defend himself. “I want to be cleared of all this and reinstated in the company,” he told RTL radio.
The third executive, Matthieu Tenenbaum, deputy head of the electric vehicle programme, had not received his letter on Monday morning, his lawyer said by text message.
Renault met the three executives last Tuesday for hearings at its headquarters. Under French law, the company had to wait at least two days before sending the dismissal letters.
The scandal has threatened to harm improving relations between France and China, after a government source said intelligence services were looking into a possible connection with China as part of initial checks before the official probe.
The French government has played down the possibility of a link to China, saying last week it was not accusing any one country of involvement. China has denied any link to the case.
Industry minister Eric Besson told France 2 on Monday that the charges and suspicions against the three were “serious”.
Asked if China featured in Renault’s complaint, Besson said: “I will be careful not to point the finger without proof, especially when we are talking about a country with which we have extremely close trade relations.”
He added: “Industrial espionage is a reality . . . but I do not accuse a country without proof.”
France is looking into tightening up legislation to protect companies in the wake of the Renault scandal.