News of disharmony in the Renault-Nissan household is a bit like learning that the cute couple next door -- so cuddly, so full of grand romantic gestures and seemingly so much in love -- are seeing a marriage counselor.
You say to yourself, "If they can't make it, what chance do we have?"
Yes, the neighborhood has seen its share of split-ups -- DaimlerChrysler, General Motors-Fiat, Volkswagen-Suzuki. But, holy smokes, could it really happen to Renault-Nissan?
The Renault-Nissan Alliance has been one of the industry's few stable and unchanging docking points. In a year when consolidation was a major topic, Renault-Nissan has been regularly cited as the beau ideal of marital bliss.
I suppose we jinxed them. Now it seems Nissan is tired of bringing home the bacon while Renault calls the shots.
One problem is Renault's mother-in-law, the French government, which tends to meddle in the automaker's life. In April, the government boosted its stake in Renault from 15 to 20 percent to increase its clout.
French bureaucrats are used to butting in at Renault. The government once owned the company outright. So Nissan's threat to raise its 15 percent stake in Renault to gain more say in the alliance doesn't sit well with French authorities.
For more than 15 years, this has been the little partnership that could. When the alliance formed in 1999, many people believed Renault and Nissan would never make it together. People like me, for instance. Germans and Americans might live sweetly under the same roof, but the French and Japanese? It would be an automotive industry version of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
That the alliance has lasted is due to Louis Schweitzer, the Renault CEO who did the deal, and to Carlos Ghosn, whom Schweitzer dispatched to Tokyo to head Nissan.
Schweitzer married above his station. He seized a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The fact that Renault controls Nissan is one of the great flukes of auto history. For decades, the French carmaker had been a troubled ward of the government -- in effect moving back in with its parents as an adult. Were Renault not an overly protected state agency, it would have been bankrupt by 1990.
Nissan had flourished in the '70s and '80s and then faltered. Renault went on a run of good fortune made possible by the brilliant Megane Scenic, a small minivan. Overnight, Renault was in a position to acquire control of Nissan.
What happened next was even more brilliant. Renault did not attempt to exert control over Nissan. While DaimlerChrysler tried a traditional merger, Renault let Nissan be Nissan, albeit under Ghosn. The two companies operated amiably as strategic partners.
Today, Renault owns a 43.3 percent controlling stake in Nissan, but over the years, the Japanese company has dwarfed its French partner in magnitude. Nissan generates two-thirds of the sales and profits in the alliance. It pulled Renault through Europe's lean years and subsidizes Renault's business in the low-margin trench warfare that is the European volume car market.
Heck, sometimes married partners just grow apart.
An impatient Nissan wants freedom to operate independently. To preserve the marriage, Renault is willing to allow that. And that's what worries France's leaders. A power struggle was probably inevitable. As CEO of both companies, Ghosn has maintained a happy equilibrium, but he understands the key to the future is Nissan.
Back in the day, Renault leaders often came from government, and there may be some top French bureaucrats who want to be Ghosn's successor. Think Emmanuel Macron, the 37-year-old economic minister and former investment banker who has been Ghosn's antagonist in the current skirmish.
Ghosn's eventual retirement -- he's 61 -- may be the beginning of the end of this great love story.