Renault suspects Chinese role in spy case

French automaker Renault suspects top managers suspended for alleged industrial espionage were supplying details of the company's electric cars to China, a newspaper and officials said Friday.

The daily Le Figaro cited "several internal sources" at the company as saying that Renault and the French secret service suspect Chinese involvement in the affair.

"Suspicions are indeed leading in that direction," towards China, said Bernard Carayon, a lawmaker for President Nicolas Sarkozy's UM party who has authored several specialist reports on economic intelligence.

One industry ministry source told AFP: "We cannot accept that an innovation financed by the French taxpayer end up in the hands of the Chinese."

Renault declined to comment on the claims, two days after it suspended three top managers. Company sources told AFP they were suspected of leaking secrets about electric cars, the auto industry's big hope for the future.

Weekly news magazine Le Point reported that the stolen secrets included details of how to build batteries for electric vehicles.

A French automobile sub-contractor had acted as an intermediary with the Chinese buyers, Le Point reported on its website.

Renault said on Thursday that its "strategic, intellectual and technological assets" had been targeted but did not give details nor indicate who might have benefited from the alleged spying.

An official at the French domestic intelligence service DCRI said Friday it had "so far" no judicial orders to investigate the affair but could be instructed to do so "at any time."

Other sources close to the case however said that the DCRI's economic crimes unit was examining the case.

Renault and its Japanese partner Nissan have staked their future on electric vehicles and plan to launch several models by 2014 to meet the rapidly rising demand for more environmentally-friendly methods of transport.

They have invested four billion euros (5.2 billion dollars) in the programme.

The firm's senior vice president Christian Husson told AFP on Thursday that the suspected espionage "was a very serious incident concerning persons in a particularly strategic position in the company.

"We are looking into all legal options which will inevitably lead us to file a complaint," he said.

A lawyer for one of those suspended, Mathieu Tenenbaum who is the joint head of Renault's electric vehicles programme, spoke out on Friday, saying his client was "stunned" by the move.

He confirmed Tenenbaum was among the three suspended and was made to leave Monday "without any explanation but... 'we know what you have done, you may as well admit it," the lawyer, Thibault de Montbrial, told AFP in a statement.

"He does not understand what is happening to him," Montbrial added. "He is stunned by the accusations of espionage and hopes that the explanations he is expecting will be given to him as soon as possible."

The suspensions are the latest in a series of industrial espionage shocks to hit France's strategically important auto sector, which employs 10 percent of the entire French workforce.

Tyre manufacturer Michelin and auto parts maker Valeo have also been targets of spying.

France's Industry Minister Eric Besson said Thursday the country was the target of "economic war" and called for firms that receive state aid for research and development to boost their protection against espionage.

For Carayon the affair showed up the lack of sufficient preventative measures, "even when certain state services, and in particular the DCRI, are in a position to bring very high-level technical advice to businesses."

Roger Faligot, a world specialist in Chinese espionage, said Chinese intelligence is particularly interested in the auto industry and that its major car companies work closely with the secret service.

"The major Chinese businesses have big research and development budgets, part of which is used to get information, with substantial budgets to buy people," he told

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