Carlos Ghosn wants to do battle. He does not receive his reserved domain at home, but in a very chic hotel a few dozen meters from his home. The establishment is deserted. The Covid-19 and the social crisis in Lebanon have made tourists flee. Concentrated, the ex-boss of Renault, very straight in his seat, hands clenched on the armrests, does not evade any question. Since his gigantic flight from Japan in December 2019, he has been preparing his judicial and media defense. The formulas, calibrated, seem to have been sharpened for a long time.
The ex-CEO of the Renault-Nissan Alliance promises a “revelation book” in the fall and plans to create a site on which he can express himself freely. “Those who have organized this tragedy for several months have bet on the old popular adage There is no smoke without fire by launching multiple accusations against me. They hoped that one of them would stick. However, I will demonstrate that there is smoke without fire, as when it is made in the theater… ”
The man who has traveled the world aboard his private jet for almost twenty years for Renault and Nissan lives surrounded by bodyguards, in fear of an assault, of being kidnapped. The tumult of his life merges with that of Lebanon. The country where he found refuge, plagued by the most serious economic crisis in its history, cries out famine and vilifies the corruption of its elites. The former citizen of the world, of three nationalities - Lebanese, French and Brazilian - no longer has a passport. The two men who helped him escape from Japan were arrested. He is summoned by a French judge and will have to explain his lifestyle. Japanese investigators and Nissan methodically compile their files.
Carlos Ghosn has always cultivated his difference, without complex vis-à-vis money and the French establishment. He tackles the current head of state Emmanuel Macron, former Minister of the Economy, and the Renault board of directors. "They knew everything about me, my strategy, my personality," he gets annoyed about the advice. Smoke screen?
You refused to respond to the summons on July 13 to an investigating judge in Nanterre. Why such distrust of France, whom you constantly criticize for lack of support?
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CARLOS GHOSN. Do not mix everything up. My lawyers had been discussing with the investigating judge the conditions of this hearing for weeks. There is a technical obstacle. My passport is in the hands of the Attorney General in Lebanon, because Japan has issued an international arrest warrant for me. I also want to be sure that my security is assured and that I am guaranteed freedom of movement.
You would be as protected in France, which does not have an extradition agreement with Japan, as in Lebanon ...
To get there, I have to cross other countries. No one can assure me that the trip will be without interruption, without accident. The judge could, for example, have me interrogated in Beirut, where I am ready to answer all his questions.
What did you expect from France? His ambassador to Japan has brought you and your wife all the assistance you need…
President Sarkozy, he had brought out Florence Cassez, this French retained in Mexico. I can only note that I was not entitled to the same considerations. The ambassador brought us excellent consular assistance, which he would have provided to any French citizen in Japan. Let us not forget that I was present in Japan as the boss of a large French company, commissioned by the state to make the alliance between Renault and Nissan sustainable. To justify this passivity, we said "trust" the Japanese justice. A system where the presumption of innocence does not exist, where the rights of the defense are flouted, where the prosecutor threatens to attack your family if you do not sign a confession! A confidence that is not granted, however, and rightly so, when it comes to the care of children of mixed Franco-Japanese couples.
What do you mean? That we don't really consider you French?
I am not naive ... I did not do the ENA (Editor's note: the National School of Administration) , I do not have the usual connections of French employers. I don't belong to the establishment. I worked a lot and the little time available, I devoted it to my family. The microcosm, rightly so, did not consider me to be one of hers.
When you were arrested, France felt that it had lost one of its biggest bosses. The background noise has changed. Renault today would pay for your hidden balance sheet, a frantic race for volumes, a failure in the high-end ... What responsibilities do you assume?
I am proud of my record, which is known to all, shareholders, the State, unions, the press ... Between 2005 and 2018, when I was President and CEO, Renault went from producing 2.3 million vehicles per year in 2005 to almost 4 million in 2017. In thirteen years, the French company has become a global manufacturer, established in future markets. We took control of the Russian company AvtoVAZ which owned the first Russian brand Lada, we doubled our production capacities in Brazil, we built the factory in Tangier in Morocco, making Renault the first brand in Africa, etc. . In 2005, Dacia, which had been bought by Louis Schweitzer, my predecessor, had only one model. The brand now deploys a whole range and is a remarkable success for Renault.
You are criticized for having favored volume at the expense of margins. Do you hear this criticism?
There is no good boss with lasting bad results, as there is no bad boss with good results for a very long time. The last five years of my mandate have been the best in Renault history, both in terms of growth and profitability. We had made Renault, as part of the Renault-Nissan Alliance, the world leader in the automobile industry in 2017 and 2018. In addition, the twelve years of my mandate took place in an atmosphere of unprecedented social peace, fueled by the signing with the unions of several competitiveness agreements. We were creative, as evidenced by the agreements with Nissan and Daimler to produce cars in French factories with their brands. When I left, a similar agreement was also being negotiated with Mitsubishi.
With you, wouldn't Renault cut jobs today?
I cannot speak of a situation which I do not know. You mentioned my assessment ...
The automobile operates in cycles. The successes and failures of the moment often stem from decisions made four or five years earlier ...
I would like someone to explain to me, if I was so bad, why was my mandate renewed in June 2018, just a few months before my arrest in Japan? The board of directors, on which two state representatives sit, asked me as a whole to stay in place for four more years. They knew everything about me, my strategy, my management and my personality. I've been at the head of Nissan for seventeen years, thirteen for Renault and three years for Mitsubishi! If I had been a “crazy about volumes”, we would have noticed it, right?
Was that too much?
At 64, I aspired to ease off. I was asked to stay. My roadmap was to make the Renault-Nissan Alliance “unlinkable”. And at the time, it was felt that I was best able to do it.
Who is behind this "we" who asked you to make a new mandate?
As I told you, I had the support of the board of directors, which includes big bosses, elected staff representatives, the industry director, that of the APE (Agence des participations de the state) and other prominent members. The Minister of Economy and Finance, in close collaboration with the Elysée Palace, also asked me to continue.
Do you blame the French State for letting you go again?
I do not blame the French state for anything. I consider that the behavior of the Board of Directors is neither very intelligent nor very dignified.
You are an authoritarian boss who we dared not contradict ...
Being clear and knowing how to make decisions is not authoritarianism. I respected my shareholders, including the State, and the governance of Renault, which was that of a modern, listed company, with audit committees and industrial strategy. I had around the table illustrious representatives of the State, including Alexis Kohler, former director of cabinet of Emmanuel Macron in Bercy and current secretary general of the Elysée, who represented the APE. No one ever said to me, "Mr. Ghosn, you are overdoing it. Calm down on the volumes! "
So you were not convinced by the shareholder state?
This is not an ideological observation, but I find it hard to credit it with the slightest success. I find it normal that the State intervenes to save the job on condition that it withdraws as soon as it can recover its stake. As the American administration did during the General Motors and Chrysler bankruptcy in 2008. I am willing to admit its intervention in strategic sectors. In the automobile, it makes no sense. I wasted a lot of time eliminating suspicion, thwarting maneuvers, calming hesitation, fighting bad ideas ... When you receive lessons in good managerial behavior from governments that are struggling to make ends meet, it's pretty ironic . I know very well that the State is not a business, but I, if I do not make up my budget, I am kicked out. It makes a big difference.
Are you optimistic about the future of the Alliance?
From November 2018 to June 2020, the GM share price fell by 12%, that of Toyota by 15%. Nissan fell 55% and Renault 70%. All these manufacturers are facing the same Covid crisis, but Renault and Nissan are punished more than the others. There is a problem of market confidence in the Alliance. Personally, I find the results of Nissan and Renault dismal. Each of the two companies folds in on itself. There is no longer any real mix of management between Renault and Nissan, but a devious distancing. My successor at Nissan, (Hiroto) Saïkawa, had the nerve to praise the old management methods in use before the Ghosn era. Those who had driven the business into the wall. A pantouflarde alliance has no chance of success. My downfall comes from the French obsession with a merger that Nissan did not want. I thought I had found an issue with the holding company acceptable to both parties…
You say that your fall is linked to industrial choices, but what Japanese justice accuses you of is embezzlement ...
Be serious ! When I was arrested in November 2018, with a stage worthy of the theater, it was about the non-declaration of undecided and uncollected remuneration. They offered me remuneration after my retirement, in order to keep me linked to the company, this was neither decided nor acted by the Board and even less paid!
This incrimination was not unfounded. For the same facts, Nissan, one of your collaborators and you had to find an agreement with the American policeman of the Stock Exchange, and pay a heavy fine…
I emphasize that we are talking about virtual money that I have never touched. Although innocent, I agreed, like Greg Kelly and Nissan, to sign an agreement to focus on my defense in Japan and avoid a procedure that would have cost me ten times more in legal fees.
PODCAST. His arrest, his escape, his show ... back on the Carlos Ghosn case
You were arrested during the Yellow Vests crisis. Do you understand that French people are shocked by a certain level of salary?
In France, a boss is a necessary evil. We don't like what it represents, but it's hard to do without it. I declined an offer from General Motors - and I regret it today - which promised me higher compensation than I had at the time. So I am not so greedy as we would like to let believe. If the boss's salary is a problem in France, you have to announce the color and set a limit. Each year, my salaries were voted by the board of directors. I was president and chief executive officer, I do not think that the total of the two salaries of my successors are lower than mine. I do not wish it.
Besides the salary, the Ghosn affair has revealed a lifestyle, a tax residence in the Netherlands, the hiring of your sister in Brazil…
The greedy dictator, the greedy boss, is the invention of a small group at the head of Nissan, which had even hired on the expenses of the company three communication agencies in France to discredit me! We pretended to discover that I was a tax resident in the Netherlands. I have been since 2012. When I wanted to strengthen the Alliance, I considered that I could neither be a French resident, nor a Japanese resident. I opted for the Netherlands, because my predecessor had installed the Renault Nissan holding there in 1999. This transfer was not done on the sly. I alerted the tax administration of my intentions, I justified them and I underwent a full audit after which I proceeded to my transfer. I also specify that I pay taxes in France on the wages I receive from Renault, and in Japan for those of Nissan. As for my sister, if she received emoluments, it is because she worked for the establishment of a Nissan factory in Brazil.
The pomp, the apartments, Brazil ...
I am not a socialite. We have pinpointed the few elements throughout my career that would tend to demonstrate the opposite. There were two events in Versailles, one professional, the other private. To celebrate the fifteen years of the Alliance, I invited foreign personalities who had contributed to the success of the Alliance, Mrs. Tony Blair, Trent Lott, (former) senator from Mississippi, who helped us to establish ourselves in this State, Hinduja, our partner in India, etc. For foreigners, Versailles represents French greatness. Renault was a patron of the château. We had invested a million euros for the restoration of the Salon de la Paix, at the request of Catherine Pégard, its administrator. She had offered to provide me with a room for a private event. A few months later, I accepted for the 50th anniversary of Carole, my wife. It didn't cost Renault anything, I paid all the costs for the evening. What was my amazement when I learned from my prison in Japan that I was accused of not having paid the 50,000 euros for renting the room. Renault never paid them, since they were never billed! As for Cannes, Renault has sponsored it long before I joined the group…
VIDEO. Carlos Ghosn explains his evening at the Palace of Versailles
The Japanese are investigating embezzlement that is said to have gone through the Nissan distributor in Oman to supply family businesses ...
I deny it all! I simply point out that the Omani distributor suspected of being involved in these alleged embezzlement is still working for Nissan. Do you seriously think that Nissan would continue to work with him if they had the slightest doubt about his honesty…