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Carlos Ghosn's latest quest is mission impossible
EARLY in Carlos Ghosn's Beirut press conference last week, he mentioned the humiliation, while in detention in Japan, of having to read letters from his family "through a looking glass". The multilingual former head of Renault and Nissan is a confident but sometimes imprecise speaker of English. Yet his inadvertent reference to Lewis Carroll's novel, in which little is as it seems, is strangely apposite.
Mr Ghosn described how his arrest in 2018 in Japan, where he is accused of financial misconduct, meant he was "brutally taken from my world as I knew it". In Lebanon, which he reached via bullet train, the inside of a large music equipment case and a private jet, he is finally among friends. But it is a far cry from his pre-arrest world.
Instead, Mr Ghosn now inhabits a legal limbo, from which he was able to stage what may go down as one of the most extraordinary executive press conferences in recent history.
I interviewed Mr Ghosn once, more than a decade ago, when he was riding high and attracting plaudits from an audience at the Women's Forum in France for his progressive views about meritocracy and gender diversity.
I admired his calm, controlled and confident performance, which seemed to follow the Red Queen's advice to Alice, the heroine of Carroll's Through the Looking Glass: "Always speak the truth - think before you speak - and write it down afterwards."
Even supremely self-confident chief executives try to follow a template, usually suggested by professional public relations people who are also on hand to whip journalists into line.
When chief executives are ousted, though, or fall under the shadow of disgrace, many tend to go to ground, working as consultants, operating behind the veil of private equity, or simply retiring to spend more time with their bonuses.
So last week's public performance was unusual. It was also revealing of Mr Ghosn's essence, which made him a success in Japan and, latterly, turned him into a target.
He demonstrated that his Teflon core of self-esteem is unbroken, despite his alleged mistreatment by Japanese authorities.
In an exhaustive and exhausting hour-long statement of his case, he cited the slide in the Renault and Nissan share prices since his departure as evidence of his importance to the groups and pooh-poohed successors' attempts to govern their alliance by consensus rather than force. As for the failure of the French car company to strike the deal with Fiat Chrysler that he was exploring in 2017, he was incredulous: "It's unbelievable! How can you lose that?"
Mr Ghosn made clear he intended to channel his self-confidence into a quest to clear his name. "I'm used to 'mission impossible'," he told one journalist who questioned the likelihood of his ever leaving his gilded cage in Lebanon now he had made himself a fugitive from Japanese justice.
He implied he resented the lack of gratitude for his contribution to Japanese business almost as much as the blows to his reputation: "Why am I being paid with evil? What did I do? Why am I being treated like a terrorist?"
Mr Ghosn's bellicose attitude makes him hard to like, however sympathetic one is about his ordeal. There were, though, some more human moments - "It was like I'd died," he said of his imprisonment, and his escape from Japan was "as though I'd come back to life" - and flashes of genuine regret. The former CEO said he should have accepted a 2009 invitation to run General Motors, declined, he said, out of loyalty to Renault and Nissan. He pointed out that the incumbent, Mary Barra, draws down an eight-figure salary, largely uncriticised by the media, for doing "a much easier job" than he used to do.
Still, the evidence of Mr Ghosn's unquenchable and dangerous hubris was everywhere, from his Trumpian use of the third person to describe his acts, to his justification of his worth by reference to more than 20 management books and countless case studies about him.
As a journalist, I have to love Mr Ghosn's candour. Rarely, though, has any former chief executive staged such a public burning of bridges, right down to his comparison of the shock of being arrested with the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.
There is an arrogant logic to Mr Ghosn's decision to flee the unique cruelties of the Japanese justice system. But I find it impossible to condone. He continues to believe he has the power, skills, and evidence to rebuild his reputation. The choices Mr Ghosn has made, though, and the way in which he has justified them, make that look like an unattainable wonderland.
"It's too late to correct it," the Red Queen tells Alice: "When you've once said a thing, that fixes it, and you must take the consequences." FT