Ah, the good old days in France

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NASHVILLE -- The past is a foreign country, a writer once said -- they do things differently there.

Ditto for France.

As the Paris auto show takes off this week, one thing that probably won't get talked about much in English is the recent news that the French government has informed top executives at Renault (and that would be "the Renault-Nissan Alliance" for those of us outside of la belle France) to become -- ahem -- "more French."

The French government owns 15 percent of Renault, meaning, technically, that the French government also owns part of Nissan. France has no interest in giving up its ownership. And France's industry minister has observed that Renault is a nice profitable French automaker these days, and it is time for it to begin investing in France. He was quoted saying that Renault should be "at least as French as it was in the past."

Picture the startled expression on the face of Renault-Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn upon receiving this request. That would be the same Carlos Ghosn who once did what was unthinkable in Japan and closed a Nissan auto factory there to help save the company, and who has lately been on a tear to move as much auto and parts production out of uncompetitive Japanese yen manufacturing as he can.

Also picture the puzzled look on the face of his No. 2 man at Renault, Carlos Tavares, the hard-charging Portuguese-born former chairman of Nissan Americas, who from his office here in Nashville a couple of years ago pushed Nissan North America out of its comfort zone and deeper into South American market investments to help strengthen global profitability.

Renault's headquarters in Paris. France's industry minister wants the French automaker, partly owned by the government, to be "at least as French as it was in the past."

More French?

As French as it was in the past?

Would that be like Queen Elizabeth, back in the 1970s, telling John Lennon that he needed to spend less time with that Yoko Ono person and become as British as he used to be?

And yet people grumble about the U.S. government passively holding stock in General Motors. Imagine U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner perusing GM's catalog of new global investments and saying, "OK, enough of that. Time to build some new car factories in New York and Massachusetts.

"Because, GM -- we'd like you to be as American as you used to be."

You can reach Lindsay Chappell at lchappell@crain.com.

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