The French president has asked the intelligence service to investigate suspected industrial spying at Renault.
The French carmaker has suspended three senior managers after an investigation into the possible leaking of electric vehicle secrets to rivals.
The firm has said industrial espionage poses a serious threat to its “strategic assets”.
The French industry minister has described the case of Renault, which is 15% state-owned, as “economic warfare”.
The right-leaning Le Figaro newspaper reported that, according to several sources, the information passed on relates to the technology in the battery and the engine of electrical vehicles that will be rolled out after 2012.
The three executives suspended are alleged to have sold new patents not yet registered to one or several intermediaries specialising in economic intelligence.
One of the three – who have all been given the opportunity to respond to the charges made against them, before any sanctions are imposed – is a member of the carmaker’s management committee.
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The incident comes at a time of rising concern in Europe and America about protecting intellectual property rights.
The picture emerging from French media reports is that the three suspended executives may have leaked details of battery and engine technologies developed for Renault’s new generation of electric cars.
Whether or not the allegations are true, they have touched a raw nerve. Western firms are worried about rivals in emerging economies grabbing their best ideas without paying for them.
The issue is becoming more serious as China and other new industrial powers become more sophisticated in what they produce.
Stories about stolen industrial secrets will probably become more frequent as competition between old industrial powers and new ones intensifies.
The BBC’s Christian Fraser, in Paris, says that it is a mark of how seriously the French government is taking this breach of trust that it has asked the intelligence service to investigate.
Car manufacturing is an important part of the French economy, and a major employer, our correspondent says.
One of the biggest advantages that Western carmakers have is their advanced technology, which enables them to compete against cheaper labour costs outside Europe.
According to sources within Renault it is suspected the final recipient of this information was likely to have been a Chinese rival.
“We cannot accept that an innovation financed by the French taxpayer ends up in the hands of the Chinese,” one, anonymous industry ministry source told Agence France Presse.
The carmaker, alongside its partner Nissan, has invested heavily in electric vehicle technology.
Both plan to launch a number of new electric vehicles over the next two years.
7 January 2011
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