PARIS -- The French government is seeking candidates to replace Renault boss Carlos Ghosn, as some board members began to voice doubts about keeping him in office after his indictment in Japan for suspected misconduct, several sources told Reuters.
In a statement on Friday, interim chairman Philippe Lagayette said Renault's board did not consider replacing Ghosn at a meeting the previous day and denied reports of boardroom divisions.
At Thursday's meeting, Renault directors were briefed on an investigation by alliance partner Nissan that led to Ghosn's arrest last month. He was charged this week over the company's failure to declare $43 million in deferred income he had arranged to receive. Nissan fired Ghosn as chairman three days after his detention, but Renault has resisted pressure to dismiss him, as the scandal strains their alliance.
The Renault board on Thursday stuck by its earlier decision to keep Ghosn as chairman and CEO. The board said it does not have information concerning Ghosn's defense.
Lagayette "refutes the press rumors reporting differences of opinion" among board members at the meeting, Renault said in its statement on Friday.
However sources said that during the board meeting, some directors led by Cherie Blair, wife of the British former prime minister Tony Blair, expressed impatience with Renault's position. "What she said, in effect, was that we can't remain in this situation forever," one source said of Blair. "At some point you need to move forward and move on."
Blair's board intervention was echoed during the meeting by two other independent directors as well as Renault staff representatives, two of the sources said - with some also voicing misgivings over management's handling of the crisis.
A Renault spokesman said he could not comment on board proceedings.
In a statement to Reuters, Blair said she was "saddened that the confidentially of board meetings has been breached in particular in respect of your entirely inaccurate description of my contribution."
She added: "I can confirm that I, along with other members of the board, asked a number of questions of Renault's lawyers concerning their knowledge of the Japanese legal system, their estimation as to how long Mr Ghosn will be held custody, and their best estimation of when Mr Ghosn would be available to resume his duties."
Toyota candidate speculation
The French government, Renault's biggest shareholder with a 15 percent stake and two board seats, typically plays a major role in succession planning. French officials have already begun listing possible candidates to replace Ghosn as CEO, three sources close to the company said.
Senior Toyota executive Didier Leroy will be considered, one said. "There's nothing official yet but the government is working on a lineup," he said. "They're ready to turn the page."
"I have no comment on speculation, and I am 100 percent concentrated on my job at Toyota," Leroy told Reuters.
The boardroom crisis has shaken the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi alliance, with Nissan CEO Hiroto Saikawa calling for changes to weaken the French parent's control. Renault owns 43.4 percent of Nissan, whose reciprocal 15 percent stake in its French parent carries no voting rights. Nissan in turn controls Mitsubishi via a 34 percent holding.
Directors have clashed with Renault managers over their right to hire independent board counsel with access to Nissan's findings, sources said.
Renault's Deputy CEO Thierry Bollore instructed Nissan to refrain from contacting Renault directors ahead of the meeting, Reuters reported on Tuesday, as the Japanese automaker sought to share its findings.
Company attorneys answering to Mouna Sepehri, who doubles as board secretary and head of Ghosn's CEO office, have so far declined to share the report with Renault directors or their lawyers, citing the secrecy of the investigation.
Ghosn's undisclosed compensation plans - doubling his total Nissan package for the five years to March 2015 - are politically sensitive in France, where President Emmanuel Macron has been battling protests.
Defense arguments advanced by Ghosn's lawyers and supporters have not contested the plans' existence. His Japanese lawyer Motonari Otsuru said in a media statement that the pay agreements had not been properly ratified.
Nissan has said its whistleblower investigation also uncovered personal use of company funds and other misconduct, detailed in the report shared with Renault lawyers this week.
Renault, which launched an audit into its own payments to Ghosn after his arrest, said on Thursday its "preliminary conclusion" was that his compensation had been "in compliance with applicable law" and governance guidelines.
Ghosn and an alleged accomplice, Nissan director Greg Kelly, remain in custody and have had limited opportunity to respond to the allegations or defend themselves, particularly in public.
Under French government pressure, Ghosn had been exploring a deeper tie-up or even a full merger between the alliance partners, despite strong reservations at Nissan.