PARIS – Carlos Ghosn says it was French President Emmanuel Macron who set in motion the train of events that led to his downfall. The former CEO of Renault SA and Nissan Motor Co. pointed the finger at Macron, blaming the French leader for angering executives and officials in Japan by trying to lock Nissan into its alliance with Renault two years ago.
While the president was never named, it was clear that was who Ghosn was alluding to when he hinted that the government asked him to push through a full merger of the two automakers against his will.
Macron was far from the only target of Ghosn’s wrath at his first news conference since escaping from Japan. The main focus of his attacks were Japanese prosecutors, Nissan executives and the carmaker’s lawyers, Latham & Watkins. But when he sought to explain the origins of the alleged plot against him, it was the French president he held responsible.
Ghosn, who fled Tokyo and sought refuge in Lebanon last month, said Wednesday he was arrested to prevent a closer tie-up between Nissan and Renault, which Macron had pushed for. He said that he had proposed the two automakers merge through a holding company and was also in talks to combine with Fiat-Chrysler Automobiles NV.
Ghosn said that Macron also upset Nissan with a secretive move to increase the French government’s stake in Renault five years ago. He gave a bitter account of the 2015 episode, which saw France increase its participation in Renault to take advantage of a new regulation that granted long-term investors double voting rights. Macron, then economy minister, did not warn Ghosn he would make the move until the last minute.
Ironically, it was Ghosn who oversaw the negotiation of an agreement to limit France’s role as an investor and Renault’s role as Nissan’s biggest shareholder. The accord has since come under strong criticism from Renault’s current management, saying it ties their hands as an investor.
At the time though, the move stirred concerns at Nissan that the French state would have too much influence over its business. Ghosn cites that moment as the tipping point when an already tense relationship between the partners began to unravel. While Renault rescued Nissan in 1999, the balance of power has tilted since then, with Nissan becoming bigger and more profitable in the past few years.
At the beginning of 2018, France asked Ghosn to “solidify” Renault’s link with Nissan as a condition of renewing his mandate as CEO of the French carmaker, even though Ghosn warned Japan was unlikely to agree while the French state was a Renault shareholder. Although France has reduced its stake since 2015, it is still Renault’s most important investor, with double voting rights, which Nissan doesn’t have.
One senior official at Renault who was watching the news conference offered a different interpretation of events, saying that there was no true alliance. Rather, Ghosn sought to pair up two companies that never wanted to work together and then made himself indispensable to their operations by preventing direct communication between the two sides.
Ghosn is already under investigation in France for expenses flagged by Renault, which also alerted prosecutors to millions of euros paid by him to a distributor in the Middle East. Ghosn has denied any wrongdoing and said he would answer to a French court if summoned.
But he also suggested that the French government hadn’t been supportive during his detention. With the crucial Renault-Nissan alliance at stake, Macron’s government has walked a fine line, insisting that the presumption of innocence must be respected while also saying that Ghosn needed to be held accountable for any wrongdoing.
Now that he’s free again, Ghosn made it clear he’s not looking for help from Paris: “I am not asking anything from the French government.”