Renault posts record sales as Ghosn successor sought

French carmaker Renault unveiled record sales Friday of nearly 3.9 million vehicles last year, even as it prepares to turn the page on the era of chief executive Carlos Ghosn who remains behind bars in Tokyo on fraud charges.

Renault posts record sales as Ghosn successor sought
Photo: AFP

The company said sales in 2018 were up 3.2 percent from the previous year putting it ahead of its French rival PSA, whose brands include Peugeot, Citroen and Opel.

Sales were driven higher by demand for Renault's low-cost models, including two light utility vehicles manufactured in a joint venture with China's Brilliance, which offset the effect of its pullout from Iran because of renewed US sanctions and a slump in the Turkish market.

Renault's Dacia and Lada brands also continued to book brisk sales, rising seven percent and 19 percent respectively.

And electric vehicle sales jumped 37 percent, led by the Zoe, though they still represented just under 50,000 cars sold last year.

Renault said it was aiming for “slight” growth in sales “with an acceleration in the second half of the year” thanks to the launch of new models, including an updated version of its flagship Clio compact.

Last year marked a sixth straight year of higher sales for the group, which is part of a powerful alliance with Japan's Nissan and Mitsubishi that Ghosn headed before his arrest in Tokyo in November on charges of financial misconduct.

Within days of being taken into custody he was fired as chairman of Nissan and Mitsubishi, but Renault kept him on as chief executive while waiting to see how the case would unfold.

But his days as Renault boss appear numbered.

In a statement Thursday, the carmaker said its governing bodies were now “actively working to find the best solution for the future governance of the group”.

The French government, which owns 15 percent of the former state-owned automaker and nearly 22 percent of its voting rights, has called for a board meeting to pick Ghosn's successor.

Renault's statement came hours after a Tokyo court quashed the 64-year-old's appeal for bail on Thursday, keeping him jailed on three charges of financial misconduct.

The former auto industry titan who saved Nissan from bankruptcy is accused of under-reporting millions of dollars in revenue as head of the Japanese firm.

But Ghosn is also facing a wave of other allegations over suspect payments, including a claim by Nissan on Friday that he received nearly eight million euros in “improper payments” from a Netherlands-based joint venture.

“Nissan views the payments Ghosn received from NMBV to be the result of misconduct and will consider measures to recover from Ghosn the full sum,” the firm said.

Renault's lead independent director Philippe Lagayette told French daily Le Figaro in an interview published Friday that “since the chief executive's absence seems likely to go on, we are now obliged to take sustainable measures”.

Renault had already named long-time executive Thierry Bollore, one of several names that have been circulating as a possible successor, as deputy CEO after Ghosn's arrest.

If Ghosn is pushed out as expected, French media reports have said Michelin CEO Jean-Dominique Senard, whose term is set to expire in May, could be named chairman of the board.

“Jean-Dominique Senard is certainly a very qualified leader. But we will do things in the proper order and when we are ready,” Lagayette said.

“We are not in conflict with Carlos Ghosn,” he added, though the board has been unable to speak with him directly concerning the charges against him since his arrest.

Renault has not announced when the board meeting to discuss Ghosn's replacement will take place.

READ ALSO: France, Japan uphold auto alliance amid Ghosn scandal

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France ready to cut Renault stake to shore up Nissan partnership: minister

France is ready to consider cutting its stake in Renault in the interests of consolidating the automaker's alliance with Nissan, Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said on Saturday.

France ready to cut Renault stake to shore up Nissan partnership: minister
A Renault employee works at the automaker's factory in Maubeuge, northern France. File photo: Ludovic MARIN / AFP
He was speaking in Japan after Italian-US carmaker Fiat Chrysler pulled the plug on its proposed merger with Renault, saying negotiations had become “unreasonable” due to political resistance in Paris.
In an interview with AFP on the sidelines of the G20 finance ministers meeting in Japan, Le Maire said Paris might consider reducing the state's 15-percent stake in Renault if it led to a “more solid” alliance between the Japanese and French firms.
“We can reduce the state's stake in Renault's capital. This is not a problem as long as, at the end of the process, we have a more solid auto sector and a more solid alliance between the two great car manufacturers Nissan and Renault,” he told AFP.
Last week, FCA stunned the auto world with a proposed “merger of equals” with Renault that would — together with Renault's Japanese partners Nissan and Mitsubishi Motors — create a car giant spanning the globe. The combined group would have been by far the world's biggest, with total sales of some 15 million vehicles, compared to both Volkswagen and Toyota, which sell around 10.6 million apiece.
But the deal collapsed suddenly on Thursday, with FCA laying the blame at the door of Paris. 
“It has become clear that the political conditions in France do not currently exist for such a combination to proceed successfully,” FCA said in a statement.
Le Maire said Renault should concentrate on forging closer ties with its Japanese partner Nissan before seeking other alliances.
Things need to be done “in the right order…. First the alliance (between Nissan and Renault) should be consolidated and then consolidation (more generally) and not one before the other.”
“Otherwise, everything risks collapsing like a house of cards,” he warned.
The minister said it would be up to the bosses of Renault and Nissan to decide how to push the alliance forward as ties between the two firms have been strained after the shock arrest of former boss Carlos Ghosn.
Renault is pushing for a full merger between the pair but there is deep scepticism of the plan at Nissan.
There were varied reactions from the French unions Saturday.
“The government is behaving like the agent of the big shareholders, favouring short-term profit to the detriment of the interests of the country,” said Fabien Gache, of the CGT union.
Cutting the state's share in Renault was abandoning its responsibility in the country's auto industry, he argued.
Franck Daout of the CFDT union said it backed a three-way alliance between Renault, Nissan and Japan's Mitsubishi — but not one between Nissan and Renault until the alliance had reached a “safe and sustainable maturity”.