PARIS (Reuters) -- Renault said it was a victim of corruption, theft and concealment on Thursday, setting the legal wheels in motion for an investigation into industrial espionage at the French carmaker.
Renault did not name the perpetrators but said it had filed an official complaint following the discovery of serious misconduct detrimental to the company's "strategic, technological and intellectual assets."
Last week Renault suspended three executives on suspicion they had leaked information about its high-profile electric car technology in a case France has dubbed "economic warfare."
The company's formal complaint puts the matter into the hands of the French judiciary and could lead to an investigation by France's DCRI intelligence agency.
The Paris prosecutor can either open a preliminary investigation that he oversees, or open a judicial inquiry that would be entrusted to an independent magistrate.
Passing the inquiry over to an independent magistrate would legally allow for a more forceful investigation as well as an overseas investigation, but this method has been used less and less in recent years for cost reasons.
A source close to the government said last week that the DCRI was already looking into the matter, before being officially handed the investigation, in its role as intelligence agency reporting to the state.
Renault Chief Operating Officer Patrick Pelata said the carmaker had been the victim of an organized international network but that key technology for electric vehicles, in which it is investing heavily, was safe.
China denies involvement
A government source last week said intelligence services were looking into a possible China link. The French government has since played down the possibility of a link to China, saying it is not accusing any one country of involvement, while China has denied any link to the case.
Xavier Thouvenin, the lawyer representing Michel Balthazard, vice president of advance planning and the most senior of the three suspended executives, told Reuters late on Wednesday his client was still waiting to find out what he was accused of.
"He's shocked by it, let's be clear about it... He's going to clear his name," Thouvenin said.
The other two executives are Bertrand Rochette, Balthazard's number two, and Matthieu Tenenbaum, deputy head of the company's electric vehicle program.
Rochette has said he was "amazed" at his suspension and denied leaking information for money, comparing the situation to Kafka's The Trial, a novel that tells the story of a man prosecuted by a remote authority for reasons that never become clear.
Tenenbaum's lawyer has said Renault did not answer key questions about what his client was accused of, adding that the allegations were based on an anonymous letter.