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Howes: Nissan's coup de Ghosn aimed to block French control

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News
Ousted Renault-Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn spent 108 days in a Tokyo jail on charges of financial crimes. He was released on bail March 6. But his real infraction may have been his push to more closely integrate the group, tilting it toward French control.

Superstar CEO Carlos Ghosn spent 108 days in a Tokyo jail for financial crimes alleged by Japanese prosecutors.

But his real crime may be more crudely nationalistic in this age of reviving nationalism: backed by the power and political considerations of the French government, Ghosn intensified a push to more tightly merge the global alliance of Renault SA and Nissan Motor Co. into a single entity that effectively would have been controlled by France.

After 20 years as arguably the industry's most successful alliance, the tie-up of Renault and Nissan faced inevitable change: the march of time, the imperatives of executive succession, the advance of electrified, self-driving vehicles, and the corrosive eclipse of trust and patience after La Génération Ghosn.

He was arrested in November on the tarmac of Tokyo's Haneda Airport. Less than a month later, I suggested the real reasons for Ghosn's arrest weren't the open secrets of his rich paycheck and jet-setting lifestyle financed with corporate cash. It was the "back-channel posturing about potentially merging the cross-shareholding group under what would likely be French control."

On Thursday, under the headline "Why Carlos Ghosn Fell: Plotters at Nissan Feared a French Takeover," The Wall Street Journal reported that Japanese executives at Nissan "gathered evidence against Ghosn ... to derail any possibility of a full combination of Nissan and Renault" that would give the French control of the global automaker.

What a surprise. To a Corporate Japan infused with an undeniable strain of commercial nationalism, that would be an unacceptable diminution of a proud automaker 20 years removed from the grave financial troubles that necessitated a Renault rescue led by Ghosn.

That's uncomfortable history properly relegated to the past. Moving on to meet the exigencies of the day is a familiar tactic in a global industry marred by epic failure (bailouts, bankruptcy, bungled mergers) and unsavory associations (Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, Stalin's Soviet Union, union busting and racial discrimination).

In the present configuration, Nissan is larger and a bigger generator of profits for the combined group. It competes in the rich U.S. market, which Renault abandoned a generation ago. And it sells more vehicles worldwide, delivering a larger share of annual revenue.

Renault owns 43 percent of Nissan and appoints three of its nine board members, but Nissan owns just 15 percent of Renault. And the French government owns 15 percent of Renault, the better to influence corporate strategy and safeguard its interest in ensuring the French automaker's 47,000 people working in France keep working in France.

Formalizing Nissan's junior status to Renault, despite the Japanese partner's leading contributions to the group, could not be allowed to happen. Not in a country whose government famously protects its automakers, and not for an automaker whose name can be rendered either "Japan industry" or "made in Japan" in English.

Engineering the ouster of Ghosn in a coup would halt a gambit threatening to leave the Japanese on the outside looking into their own company. And it would reconfigure the top leadership at both Renault and Nissan, rebooting talks that aim to more closely integrate the two automakers and do it on mutually agreeable terms.

It won't be easy: Japan's Nissan is bigger, more profitable and more globally balanced; France's Renault boasts a commanding leadership position backed by its federal government; and both sides need each other to maintain economies of scale, to deliver cost savings and to compete in the Auto 2.0 spaces of mobility, autonomy and electrification.  

If nothing else, the era of transnational mergers proved that culture will out, eventually. The fusion of Daimler-Benz AG and Chrysler Corp. proved ill-fated from the start, an ambitious vision grounded in a big lie they called "a merger of equals" that was no such thing. It failed for many of the same reasons Renault-Nissan succeeded, starting with a leader whose multi-cultural, multi-lingual makeup enabled him to be effective.

Ghosn succeeded also because Nissan faced imminent collapse a generation ago. It doesn't anymore, and the increasing strains of competition and a technological arms race are manifest in the French pressing for more control — because they can.

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Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.