Carlos Ghosn said a surprise move orchestrated five years ago by French President Emmanuel Macron, who was then economy minister, soured relations between Renault and Nissan, setting in motion the train of events that led to his downfall.
In a news conference in Beirut on Wednesday following his escape to Lebanon from Japan, the former CEO of Renault and Nissan pointed the finger at Macron, blaming the French leader for angering executives and officials in Japan by trying to lock Nissan into its alliance with Renault.
While the president was never named, it was clear that was who Ghosn was alluding to when he hinted that the government asked him to push through a full merger of the two automakers against his will.
Ghosn said Nissan executives and Japanese officials were shocked by a 2015 decision by the French government to increase its voting rights at Renault. The overnight move gave the French state a blocking minority in Renault, which in turn controlled Nissan via its 43.4 percent stake in the Japanese automaker.
"This left a big bitterness. Not only with the management of Nissan, but also the government of Japan," Ghosn told reporters. "And this is where the problem started."
France increased its participation in Renault to take advantage of new regulation that granted long-term investors double voting rights. Macron, then a 37-year-old economy minister with then-unknown presidential ambitions, did not warn Ghosn he would make the move until the last minute.
According to French and Japanese sources, the move angered the Japanese side of the Renault-Nissan alliance, which feared a national champion was falling under the control of the French government.
In the ensuing eight-month boardroom fight between Macron's ministry and Hiroto Saikawa - Nissan's second-in-command at the time, Ghosn oversaw the negotiation of an agreement to limit France’s role as an investor and Renault’s role as Nissan’s biggest shareholder. The accord has since come under strong criticism from Renault’s current management, saying it ties their hands as an investor.
Macron's office did not respond to a request for comment.
Ghosn cites the French government's move as the tipping point when an already tense relationship between the partners began to unravel. While Renault rescued Nissan in 1999, the balance of power has tilted since then, with Nissan becoming bigger and more profitable in the past few years.
At the beginning of 2018, France asked Ghosn to “solidify” Renault’s link with Nissan as a condition of renewing his mandate as CEO of the French automaker, even though Ghosn warned Japan was unlikely to agree while the French state was be a Renault shareholder.
Although France has reduced its stake since 2015, it is still Renault’s most important investor, with double voting rights, which Nissan does not have.