Renault says target of international spy ring

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A boss of French automaker Renault said Saturday the company had been targeted by an international spy ring but claimed it had lost no major secrets in the affair which has seen top managers suspended.

The French government meanwhile refused to confirm reports that the three managers were supplying details of the company's electric cars to China.

Renault number two Patrick Pelata told Saturday's Le Monde daily that the inquiry that led to the suspensions had concluded that the carmaker was faced with "an organized system of collecting economic, technological and strategic information to serve foreign interests".

"Renault is a victim of an organized international network" run by "professionals," Pelata said.

But he said that "no nugget of technological or strategic information, including almost 200 patents registered or on the point of being registered, has filtered out".

The research program on a new generation of batteries was also not concerned, Pelata said, adding that the electric vehicle development program would carry on as planned.

But he admitted that details of the design and costs of the vehicles could have been leaked.

"That is serious but less than if the damage had concerned the technology," he said.

Pelata confirmed that Renault would be taking legal action and said the three managers would be undergoing interviews preparatory to being sacked.

A lawyer for one of those suspended, Mathieu Tenenbaum, deputy head of Renault's electric vehicles program, spoke out on Friday, saying his client was "stunned" by the move.

He said Tenenbaum was made to leave Monday "without any explanation but... "˜we know what you have done, you may as well admit it," the lawyer, Thibault de Montbrial, told AFP in a statement.

"He does not understand what is happening to him," Montbrial added. "He is stunned by the accusations of espionage and hopes that the explanations he is expecting will be given to him as soon as possible."

Pelata pointed no fingers at any country linked to the spying and Industry Minister Eric Besson refused Saturday to confirm reports that Renault and the French secret service suspect Chinese involvement.

"At this stage I cannot say that and only an inquiry could do so," he told Europe 1 radio.

Weekly news magazine Le Point said Friday that the stolen secrets included details of how to build batteries for electric vehicles.

A French automobile sub-contractor had acted as an intermediary with the Chinese buyers, Le Point reported on its website, while Le Monde said the system set up was "quite sophisticated".

The daily said dummy companies had been set up and foreign bank accounts opened into which large sums of cash were regularly paid.

Renault and its Japanese partner Nissan have staked their future on electric vehicles and plan to launch several models by 2014 to meet the rapidly rising demand for more environmentally-friendly methods of transport.

They have invested €4 billion (US$5.2 billion) in the program.

The suspensions are the latest in a series of industrial espionage shocks to hit France's strategically important auto sector, which employs 10 percent of the entire French workforce.

Tyre manufacturer Michelin and auto parts maker Valeo have also been targets of spying.

Besson said Thursday the country was the target of "economic war" and called for firms that receive state aid for research and development to boost their protection against espionage.

The French government used to own Renault and still has a 15 percent stake in the company, which makes trucks, buses and agricultural vehicles as well as cars and vans.

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