Exclusive: Renault chairman weakened as Macron snubs meeting

June 12, 2019

By Laurence Frost and Michel Rose

PARIS (Reuters) – French President Emmanuel Macron has turned down a request to meet Renault chairman Jean-Dominique Senard, who is furious over the government’s interference at the carmaker, sources told Reuters, raising questions over Senard’s future.

News of the rebuff came as Renault shareholders met on Wednesday to endorse Senard’s January appointment to replace Carlos Ghosn, the ousted leader of the Renault-Nissan alliance.

Senard, whose bid to merge with Fiat Chrysler (FCA) over Nissan’s reservations was scuppered by French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire, unsuccessfully sought a meeting with Macron to secure his backing, four government and company sources said.

Seven months after Ghosn’s arrest on financial misconduct charges – which he denies – the alliance he forged is on life support. Nissan refused to study a full Renault tie-up proposed by Senard, and wants to weaken its 43.4% shareholder’s grip.

Instead, Senard then tabled an FCA-Renault deal proposal developed without Nissan’s knowledge. But FCA Chairman John Elkann withdrew the offer after France, Renault’s biggest shareholder, blocked the June 5 board vote and demanded more time to secure Nissan’s endorsement.

Days later, in a third risky move that caused outrage in Japan, Senard vowed to block governance reforms introduced by Nissan after the Ghosn scandal unless Renault gets more seats on the Japanese firm’s powerful new board committees.

Renault sources say Senard’s exasperation deepened when Le Maire, seeking to smooth tensions from the sidelines of a weekend G20 meeting in Japan, publicly discussed a possible cut to France’s 15% Renault stake or even Renault’s Nissan holding.

Senard felt further undermined by Le Maire’s surprise pronouncements and told colleagues he expected to be “backed up from the highest level of government”, according to one. But Macron’s office declined a proposed sit-down, the sources said.

“There is no meeting with Senard on the president’s agenda,” an Elysee official said on Wednesday.

Renault declined to comment. But sources close to the chairman played down the rebuffed meeting request and said he was determined to stay put.

Senard and Macron “communicate regularly by text message”, one said, and the French head of state is extremely busy with other matters. “Senard is on top form for his shareholders’ meeting and is resolved to continue.”

France is not seeking to replace Senard, another government source said. “He may have taken some bad advice, and he should clearly have made more personnel changes for Renault to move on” from the Ghosn era, he added.

Nissan CEO Hiroto Saikawa and Renault CEO Thierry Bollore, Ghosn’s former second-in-command who was promoted in January, barely speak and are now seen as clear irritants to the relationship, French official and company sources say.

“Senard has become well aware of this,” said a person familiar with his thinking. “So we’ll see how things evolve after the shareholder meeting.”

Saikawa’s position also appears more fragile, after two leading investment advisory firms recommended a vote against his reappointment at the Japanese carmaker’s June 25 shareholder gathering.

The recommendations may boost the chances of Saikawa’s exit, although a vote against him remains unlikely. Under a 2015 amendment to alliance shareholder pacts, Renault is required to support the Nissan board’s proposal to renew his mandate.

(Reporting by Laurence Frost, Michel Rose and Gilles Guillaume; Editing by Mark Potter)

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