The implosion of Renault’s merger plans with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV has brought the French and Japanese automakers’ tensions out into the open, with Nissan’s reluctance to endorse the deal said to be partially responsible for its failure.
In response, Renault chairman Jean-Dominique Senard sent a letter threatening to block the Yokohama-based company’s plans to overhaul its governance structure.
Nissan confirmed that it had received the letter, calling “Renault’s new stance on this matter most regrettable.”
The corporate-governance reform “was discussed thoroughly by Nissan’s board and approved by all board members, including Renault’s own nominees,” Nissan CEO Hiroto Saikawa said in the company’s statement. “Such a stance runs counter to the company’s efforts to improve its corporate governance.”
Nissan also seized on comments made by the finance minister of France, Renault’s biggest shareholder, that his government is willing to reduce its stake to strengthen the alliance.
Nissan, which has longed chafed against French influence, would prefer a full exit by the government, people familiar with Nissan’s thinking said, asking not to be identified because the information isn’t public.
“Overall it is a mess, and just makes a tricky situation worse,” said Janet Lewis, an analyst at Macquarie Capital in Tokyo.
“Senard’s threat to abstain on the corporate governance reform is very negative for the alliance. He is fast losing any trust Nissan management may have had for a collaborative relationship. Playing hardball doesn’t typically work in Japan, so he will find it very hard to achieve anything going forward.”
Senard, who was brought in by the French government to smooth the relationship with Nissan, has instead pressed Nissan for a merger it didn’t want, then pursued the mega-deal with Fiat Chrysler.
In a letter to Nissan, Senard said the French automaker is seeking better representation within Nissan’s plan to set up three committees on nominations, remuneration and auditing, said the person, who cautioned that Renault hasn’t made a final decision on its vote and was still in negotiations.
While Renault understands Nissan’s desire to improve its governance, the so-called three board level committees system “should not serve as a tool directed or used against Nissan’s largest shareholder,” the letter said. Nissan shareholders meet on June 25 to vote on the structure.
The latest crisis erupted a week ago, when Renault’s merger talks with Fiat fell apart after Nissan abstained two of its board votes for further negotiation, prompting the French state to pause discussions.
Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire, in Japan to attend G-20 meetings, sought to patch up tensions but ended up reminding the Japanese company of his government’s outsized influence over the automakers with 15% stake in Renault, which in turn owns 43% of Nissan.
The Japanese automaker has long been uneasy over the arrangement, which was strained even further following the November arrest of Carlos Ghosn, the architect and former chairman of the alliance.
Amid the instability, Renault has been pushing for closer ties, while Nissan has sought more autonomy.
The two need each other more than ever, given the massive investments needed for electric vehicles and self-driving technology.