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Renault spy allegation opens way for probe

PARIS (Reuters) - French carmaker Renault accused a foreign private company of industrial espionage Thursday, in an official filing that set the wheels in motion for a judicial investigation.

View of the Renault headquarters in Boulogne-Billancourt, near Paris January 11, 2011. REUTERS/Jacky Naegelen

Jean-Claude Marin, the Paris prosecutor who will consider Renault’s allegations, said: “They don’t cite a foreign power, they only cite private persons.”

Renault said in its filing it was a victim of corruption, theft and concealment and had discovered serious misconduct detrimental to its “strategic, technological and intellectual assets” in its filing late Thursday.

Renault did not name any perpetrators or a company.

Last week Renault suspended three executives on suspicion they had leaked information about its high-profile electric car technology in a case the French government has dubbed “economic warfare” and which has prompted a move to tighten laws to protect companies.

The carmaker’s formal complaint puts the matter into the hands of the French judiciary and could lead to an investigation by France’s DCRI domestic intelligence agency.

The espionage scandal threatened to harm improving relations between France and China, after a government source last week said intelligence services were looking into a possible connection to China.

The French government has since played down the possibility of a link to China, saying it is not accusing any one country of involvement, while China has denied any link to the case.

“I can tell you that many nationalities have been mentioned in this dossier,” said Renault’s lawyer Jean Reinhart, noting that the complaint did not cite foreign countries.

Reinhart, a specialist in corporate and social law, was part of a team representing French bank Societe Generale in last year’s high-profile trial of rogue trader Jerome Kerviel.

He told Reuters a complaint against “persons unknown” was used when the identities of all those involved in a complaint were not necessarily known.

“You’re saying, ‘this is what I have possibly identified ... but you’re saying perhaps there are more people to be discovered,” he said.

Reinhart added: “I think we’re in for a preliminary investigation which could take a relatively long time. It’s a very complicated dossier ... we’re talking about months.”

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The prosecutor can either open a preliminary investigation that he oversees, or open a judicial inquiry that would be entrusted to an independent magistrate.

Passing the inquiry over to an independent magistrate would legally allow for a more forceful investigation as well as an overseas investigation, but this method has been used less and less in recent years for cost reasons.

A source close to the government said last week that the DCRI was already examining the matter, before being officially handed the investigation, in its role as intelligence agency reporting to the state.

Renault Chief Operating Officer Patrick Pelata said the carmaker had been the victim of an organized international network but that key technology for electric vehicles, in which it is investing heavily, was safe.

Xavier Thouvenin, the lawyer representing Michel Balthazard, vice president of advance planning and the most senior of the three suspended executives, told Reuters late Wednesday his client was still waiting to find out what he was accused of.

“He’s shocked by it, let’s be clear about it... He’s going to clear his name,” Thouvenin said.

The other two executives are Bertrand Rochette, Balthazard’s number two, and Matthieu Tenenbaum, deputy head of the company’s electric vehicle program.

Rochette has said he was “amazed” at his suspension and denied leaking information for money, comparing the situation to Kafka’s The Trial, which tells the story of a man prosecuted by a remote authority for reasons that never become clear.

Tenenbaum’s lawyer has said Renault did not answer key questions about what his client was accused of, adding that the allegations were based on an anonymous letter.

Reporting by Helen Massy-Beresford, Thierry Leveque and Gilles Guillaume; writing by Sophie Walker; editing by Alexander Smith and Sophie Walker

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