Car spy case: Renault's Patrick Pelata remains upbeat

Patrick Pelata
Image caption Mr Pelata said Renault had been the victim of an organised international network

Renault's chief operating officer says the impact of industrial spying on the carmaker could have been much worse.

Patrick Pelata told Le Monde newspaper data about Renault's electric car programme may have leaked, but its vital technology secrets were safe.

Renault suspended three senior managers on Monday after an investigation into the possible leaking of electric vehicle secrets to rivals.

France's industry minister refused to speculate whether China was involved.

Eric Besson had previously described the case at Renault, which is 15% state-owned, as "economic warfare", and French President Nicolas Sarkozy has asked the intelligence service to investigate.

Sources within Renault suspect the final recipient of the stolen information was likely to have been a rival in China.

Advanced technology

Without pointing fingers, Mr Pelata said the theft, which was detected last August and led to four months of internal investigations, was "the work of professionals".

"Renault is the victim of an organised international network," he told Le Monde's weekend edition.

Image caption Renault and its partner Nissan have invested extensively in electric vehicle technology

"After a few weeks, we came to the conclusion that we were facing an organised collection of economic, technological and strategic interests located to serve abroad," added Mr Pelata.

He said the theft may have included details about the costs and economic model of Renault's high-profile multi-billion euro electric vehicle programme, but not the "golden nuggets" of its technology, including some 200 patents that are being lodged.

Mr Pelata said the theft involved three key Renault executives, whose identities he did not wish to confirm.

One of the three - whom he said would face a preliminary hearing before facing a likely dismissal and possible criminal charges - is reportedly a member of the carmaker's management committee.

The right-leaning Le Figaro newspaper had reported earlier that the information passed on relates to the technology in the battery and the engine of electrical vehicles that will be rolled out after 2012.

But Mr Pelata said "nothing critical" about the company's innovative technology had been leaked.

"It's serious, but not as bad as if it had been the technology," he said. "Whether it's the chemistry of the electrodes, the structure of the batteries, the different elements of assembling, be it the charger or the engine itself, we feel ok."

He added that the programme had not lost "one day" as a result of the theft and was still on schedule.

The BBC's Christian Fraser, in Paris, says it is a mark of how seriously the French government is taking this breach of trust that it has asked the intelligence service to investigate.

Car manufacturing is an important part of the French economy, and a major employer, our correspondent says.

One of the biggest advantages that Western carmakers have is their advanced technology, which enables them to compete against cheaper labour costs outside Europe.

The carmaker, alongside its partner Nissan, has invested heavily in electric vehicle technology.

Both plan to launch a number of new electric vehicles over the next two years.

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