Paris - An international network may have obtained data about Renault's electric car programme, but its vital technology secrets are safe and production of the vehicles will not be held up, the French carmaker said.
Three Renault executives, including one member of its management committee, were suspended over the leaking of data, which prompted the government to warn of a widespread risk to French industry.
"This is the work of professionals," chief operating officer Patrick Pelata said in an interview with Le Monde newspaper's weekend edition. "Renault is the victim of an organised international network."
The executives are suspected of leaking information related to the high-profile electric vehicle programme, a key plank of the carmaker's strategy in which it is investing billions of euros together with Japanese partner Nissan.
200 PATENTS BEING LODGED
Pelata said information may have been leaked regarding the costs and economic model of the programme, but not the "golden nuggets" of its technology, including some 200 patents that are being lodged.
"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 electric programme was on schedule: "We have not lost one day to launch our four electric cars.
Pelata said the three employees would face a preliminary hearing before facing a likely dismissal. The company was studying all legal options that would probably lead it to press criminal charges.
None of the suspended executives has a high profile among investors or in the media.
Thibault de Montbrial, a lawyer for Matthieu Tenenbaum, deputy head of Renault's electric-vehicle programme and one of the three suspended employees, called the affair "surreal".
"My client is now portrayed as an international spy when so far he still doesn't have any material information explaining why Renault is accusing him."
CHINESE LINK, THOUSANDS OF CASES
Intelligence services are investigating a possible Chinese connection, a government source said, but French Industry Minister Eric Besson played down the Chinese link, saying he could not confirm anything for now.
"Renault will press charges and then the DCRI (internal intelligence service) will in all likelihood be asked to investigate," he told Europe 1 radio. "At that point we will know a lot more on the backers, beneficiaries, etc."
Renault is 15 percent owned by the French state.
In 2007, a Chinese student on a work placement at car parts maker Valeo was given a prison sentence for obtaining confidential documents. A court stopped short of an industrial espionage verdict, instead finding she had "abused trust".
Relations between France and China hit a low two years ago when French President Nicolas Sarkozy criticised Beijing's policy on Tibet.
A visit by Chinese President Hu Jintao to Paris late last year helped improve ties. France wants Chinese support for reform of the global monetary system under its presidency of the Group of 20 club of economic powers.
INDUSTRIAL ESPIONAGE INCREASING
A government official dealing with corporate espionage, Olivier Buquen, told weekend paper Le Journal du Dimanche that there were thousands of industrial spying cases in France in the recent years as firms and countries seek technological edges.
"The number of incidents on French territory - and these are reviewed over five years - is alarming," Buquen said. "It amounts to several thousand," he said.
"All sectors, all regions and businesses of all sizes are affected," Buquen said. "The number of countries whose nationals are engaged in corporate espionage is also increasing."
Buquen said a draft bill was in the works to strengthen the legal protection of trade secrets.
Christian Harbulot, head of France's School of Economic Warfare which trains students in corporate intelligence, said the difficulties encountered by car producers during the financial crisis, coupled with the shift to electric technology, had made the sector even more competitive.
"There is huge tension in the strategies undertaken by the groups, and competitors are trying to find out what the others have decided to do.