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France probes China link in Renault spy scandal

PARIS (Reuters) - French intelligence services are investigating a possible Chinese connection in an industrial espionage scandal at carmaker Renault, a government source said on Friday.

A Renault Fluence Z.E. electric car is displayed on media day at the Paris Mondial de l'Automobile September 30, 2010. REUTERS/Jacky Naegelen

Industry Minister Eric Besson, who spoke earlier this week of a case that smacked of “economic warfare,” said no official inquiry had been opened and this would happen only if the carmaker lodged a formal complaint.

Asked about the possible Chinese lead, Besson said: “I am not authorized to say anything at all on the subject.”

Three Renault executives, including one member of its management committee, were suspended on Monday in the case, which has prompted the French government to warn of a widespread risk to French industry.

The executives are suspected of leaking information related to the high-profile electric vehicle program, a key plank of the carmaker’s strategy in which, together with its Japanese partner Nissan, it is investing billions of euros.

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Le Point news magazine reported on its website, citing sources, that the espionage targeted battery technology which had not yet been patented.

Renault, which declined to comment, is 15 percent owned by the French state. None of the executives has a high profile among investors or in the media.

“The DCRI (intelligence service) is working on this case. It is in contact with Renault,” said the government source, adding the China connection was a possibility being explored but not for now in any way substantiated.

Relations between France and China hit a low two years ago when French President Nicolas Sarkozy criticized Beijing’s policy on Tibet.

But a visit by Chinese President Hu Jintao to Paris late last year helped forge closer ties as France seeks to secure Chinese support for reform of the global monetary system under its presidency of the Group of 20 club of economic powers.