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Ghosn - I thought Versailles palace party venue was a gift

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Former Nissan-Renault boss Carlos Ghosn said on Wednesday he had not initially paid to hold a family party in the grounds of the sumptuous Versailles Palace because he thought the palace was offering him the use of the venue for free.

Former Nissan chairman Carlos Ghosn gestures during a news conference at the Lebanese Press Syndicate in Beirut, Lebanon January 8, 2020. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

Ghosn, who last month escaped to Lebanon from Japan where he was on bail awaiting trial, is under a separate investigation in France to establish if the party at the 17th century palace was a financial benefit that he obtained improperly.

Speaking at his first news conference since his November 2018 arrest in Japan, Ghosn said he had believed the use of the grounds of the opulent venue was a “commercial gesture” from the palace in return for Renault’s sponsorship of renovations.

Ghosn said he was later surprised to learn that the use in October 2016 of the Grand Trianon building, located in the grounds of Versailles Palace, was billed to Renault.

“Catherine Pegard, who is the head of Versailles, told me ‘Mr Ghosn you are a big benefactor, you know from time to time for our big friends we can make rooms available. If you have a private party, we can make rooms available’. I say thank you very much.”

Calls to Pegard’s office at the Public Establishment of the Palace, which runs Versailles, went unanswered.

Months after his contact with Pegard, Ghosn said he decided to host his wife Carole’s 50th birthday at the palace.

The event was organised by a company, he said. Ghosn presented a document at the Beirut press conference that he said showed the organisers had listed the cost of renting the building as “zero euros”.

“So you know, when I see this I say ‘it’s a commercial gesture’.”

He described his surprise to later learn the fee was 50,000 euros (42,412.8 pounds) and had been deducted from what he called “the credit Renault earns from being a sponsor of Versailles.”

“We said ‘ok, we’re ready to pay’,” Ghosn said. “We thought in good faith this was a kind of commercial gesture.”

The French probe was launched after Renault said in February 2019, three months after Ghosn’s arrest in Japan, that it had found evidence in an internal probe that it had footed some of the costs of the celebration.

Ghosn said that if France’s legal authorities wanted to speak to him, he was willing to talk to them.

Asked what he was seeking from the French authorities, he said: “Nothing.” He added that he expected that the presumption of innocence would be respected in France.

Reporting by Samia Nakhoul in Beirut; Writing by Richard Lough in Paris; editing by Mike Collett-White