It is easy to get lost in the technicalities of the planned changes in the Renault-Nissan alliance, and lose sight of a key element in French business life: the electoral timetable.
In about six months, the French will elect a new parliament as well as a president. At present, the conservatives look likely to be voted back in power after five years out of power.
If they do rule again, they are likely to sell most of the remaining stakes the state still holds in companies. They will do this partly because of a free-market ideology, but mostly because they will need every penny to plug the huge budget deficit that looms for 2002. Even before the September 11 attacks raised the specter of worldwide recession, the draft 2002 budget was criticized for overly optimistic economic assumptions.
So it has been clear for some time to people familiar with French politics that the government's holding of a controlling stake in Renault was likely to end.
Against that background, Renault and Nissan establishing a Dutch structure able to fend off hostile takeover bids appears like a pre-emptive strike: It will prevent the French carmaker and its Japanese ally falling prey to a corporate predator once the state has sold its Renault stake.
There is nothing that top managers hate so much as a successful takeover bid because, more than anybody else in the company, they're liable to lose their jobs or - almost as bad - relinquish part of their power.
Renault Nissan BV, or RN BV as the Dutch structure is called, will ensure Louis Schweitzer remains at Renault's helm until 2005, and that Carlos Ghosn, Nissan's CEO, succeeds him, as planned.
The announcement by the French Finance Ministry that its controlling stake in Renault will be slashed to 25 percent at some point helped set the scene nicely for the creation of RN BV. The current finance minister happens to be Laurent Fabius. Louis Schweitzer was his chief assistant between 1981 and 1986, when Fabius was in succession minister for the budget, for industry and prime minister.
Renault will call an extraordinary shareholders meeting in early 2002, when Fabius will still be running the Finance Ministry, to approve the changes in the Renault-Nissan management structures. There's no doubt about the vote's outcome since the state and friendly institutional investors own more than 50 percent of Renault's voting rights.
Once this formality is cleared, Renault's top management will be shielded against political vagaries and state asset sell-offs. Unlike Jac Nasser, Renault won't have to worry about meddling family owners. Too bad for the minority shareholders who love a heated takeover battle to pep up share prices. No bid, please, we're French.