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Japan intervened to stall Nissan-Renault merger, e-mails show

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The Japanese government was wary of France's insistence on making the 20-year alliance permanent.

Paris

AS THEN-chairman Carlos Ghosn pushed to strengthen Nissan Motor Co's ties with partner Renault SA last year, officials at the Japanese company were working behind the scenes with government officials to defend Nissan's independence, according to emails seen by Bloomberg.

The efforts by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry to head off changes in the two-decade alliance show concern was mounting in top echelons of the Japanese government - months before Mr Ghosn's arrest on allegations of financial wrongdoing - that his push to cement a new alliance structure, would boost Renault and its largest shareholder, the French state, at Nissan's expense.

The emails, which were either addressed to Mr Ghosn or copied to him, also show Nissan's leadership trying to protect the company's interests in a relationship the Japanese already saw as one-sided. While they sought help in heading off merger plans being floated by the French side, Nissan executives also worked to prevent Japanese officials from over-reacting and inflaming a delicate situation and sought direction from Mr Ghosn.

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In an April 2018 email recounting a meeting with a French government official, the former head of Nissan's CEO office, Hari Nada, said the Japanese company would rather keep the existing structure of the alliance than merge with Renault, and that "a re-balancing of the shareholding" to reduce the French company's 43 per cent stake in Nissan was the preferred option.

The Japanese government was also wary of France's insistence on making the 20-year alliance permanent. The next month, a message from another Nissan executive, head of government affairs Hitoshi Kawaguchi, describes a draft memorandum of understanding from the economy ministry aimed at their French counterparts. Nissan's independence "should be respected," the draft says.

Nissan declined to comment directly on the emails, while reiterating that misconduct by Mr Ghosn and his former aide, Greg Kelly, is "the sole cause of the chain of events." The company declined to make Mr Nada or Mr Kawaguchi available for comment.

Hiroshige Seko, Japan's Economy Minister, declined to comment on exchanges it had with France. "It's obvious that we exchange various opinions and information with the French government," he said at a press conference on Tuesday.

A spokesman for the French finance ministry declined to comment, as did a spokeswoman for Renault.

The jockeying last year came as uncertainty hung over the partnership Mr Ghosn had dominated for two decades. The 65-year old car titan, who remains jailed in Japan awaiting trial, was chairman of Nissan at the time and had just signed a new deal to remain chairman and CEO at Renault. In doing so, he had pledged to honour French demands that he make the three-way alliance that includes Mitsubishi Motors Corp "irreversible," while cautioning that Japan would resist a tighter structure if France remained a shareholder. BLOOMBERG