PARIS French Industry Minister Eric Besson said on Sunday he did not want to destabilize carmaker Renault (RENA.PA) when asked if chief executive Carlos Ghosn should step down over a now debunked espionage scandal.
"As industry minister, I hear the voice of the people asking for punishment, but the industry minister's greater concern at this time is not to destabilize Renault any further," Besson told RFI radio in an interview.
He said Ghosn played a key role in Renault's alliance with Japanese carmaker Nissan (7201.T), and was also facing a major industrial challenge with the launch of electric cars.
Renault admitted this month it had wrongly dismissed three senior executives after it had been tricked into believing they had sold vital know-how on the electric car project to third parties, possibly involving China.
The three men were fired in January on suspicion of industrial espionage. All denied wrongdoing from the start and began legal action against the carmaker. A Renault security manager has been placed under investigation for suspected fraud.
Ghosn and right-hand man Patrick Pelata held onto their jobs after the climbdown, but despite giving up bonuses they have come under continued public pressure over the fiasco, whose impact rippled well beyond the world of automobile research.
The affair embarrassed France's government, which owns 15 percent of Renault, and caused a rift with China, weeks ahead of a key visit to the country by President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Beijing implicitly rebuked France over its handling of the matter on Thursday, saying it hoped that people checked facts before unjustly implicating the country.
Relations were strained when a French government source, speaking before the case collapsed, said investigators were following up a possible link with China.
Besson and Finance Minister Christine Lagarde issued a joint statement last week saying the government would ensure anyone responsible for the discredited espionage claims was dealt with.
(Reporting by Vicky Buffery, Tim Hepher; Editing by Paul Taylor)