Renault executive, China deny espionage charge
A Renault executive suspected of spying on the French carmaker firmly denied Tuesday he had leaked secrets, as China angrily dismissed claims that it was involved in the scandal.
"Renault is making very serious accusations against me which I totally refute. The facts were outlined to me and I refute them as well," Michel Balthazard told reporters.
He made the denial after he was summoned to a meeting with Renault bosses along with two other senior managers suspected of industrial espionage, reportedly involving the company's electric car programme.
"Today, I consider myself the victim of an affair that is beyond me," said Balthazard, promising to cooperate with any investigation and insisting that during his 30 years in the company he had always been loyal.
Renault last week suspended the three executives over suspicions they had leaked strategic information. Reports said the secrets concerned details of the electric cars on which Renault has staked its future.
Le Figaro newspaper reported on Tuesday that a Chinese firm had paid undisclosed sums into Swiss and Liechtenstein bank accounts opened by two Renault executives implicated in the inquiry.
But Chinese officials angrily rejected such claims.
"As for this so-called story that China is involved, we believe this is totally groundless, irresponsible and unacceptable," foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters.
The reports of a Chinese bid to obtain Renault's secrets follow a long history of similar allegations widely attributed to Beijing's goal of closing the technology gap with the West.
China's bid to become a high-tech powerhouse that innovates, rather than just the world's workshop, has seen it accused of stealing everything from train designs to fighter jet systems to auto components.
French government spokesman Francois Baroin has insisted Paris is not pointing the finger at any country in the affair.
"It is a process of inquiry," Baroin told Europe 1 radio. "Renault, like others, is the victim of an economic intelligence war."
Officials have said French intelligence services are monitoring the case and Renault says it plans to press charges.
The firm says it did not lose any major trade secrets in the affair and has not commented on allegations about China.
Renault number two Patrick Pelata told Saturday's Le Monde daily that its inquiries showed it had been targeted by an "organised international network."
The trio summoned by Renault bosses included Matthieu Tenenbaum, the joint head of Renault's electric vehicles programme, whose lawyer spoke out in his defence last week.
Le Figaro, which did not identify its sources, reported that private investigators hired by Renault uncovered a Swiss bank account containing 500,000 euros ($646,000) and another in Liechtenstein with 130,000 euros.
It said the money had been paid in by a Chinese power company.
In what appeared to be a bid to hide the payments, the cash was moved via a series of intermediary transfers via Shanghai and Malta.
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 four billion euros ($5.2 billion) in the programme.
© 2011 AFP