YOKOHAMA, Japan — Renault Chairman Jean-Dominique Senard says his top priority is mending the French carmaker’s ruptured relations with longtime partner Nissan Motor Co.
But the shareholder backlash he endured last week shows how deep the bad blood runs.
Senard, already a Nissan director when he took the stage at the Japanese company’s annual shareholder meeting, was approved as vice chairman at the board meeting immediately afterward.
But first he had to weather a barrage of shareholder fury.
During the event’s question-and-answer period, skeptical attendees attacked his professed loyalty to Nissan. They questioned his plan to merge Renault and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. And they called him out on the fact that, despite being tapped as vice chairman, Senard, 66, owned no Nissan shares.
One shareholder said he feared a foreign takeover of Nissan and took a dig at Senard’s nationality, saying “French people” often hide true intentions behind a smiling facade. “They are really sly,” the shareholder said.
“Can you behave as a Nissan director and not just as the chairman of Renault?” he asked Senard. “You would like to take advantage of the merger for Renault. That’s obvious.”
Senard’s rebuttal was emotional. He pleaded with the audience to believe that he has the automaker’s best interests at heart.
“I beg you to believe me on that,” Senard said. “There was obviously no aggressive intention.
“The last thing that came in my mind was to be aggressive toward a company of which I am a director. I beg you to believe me on that,” he said. “There are no bad intentions at all.”
The arrest last November of Carlos Ghosn, who was chairman of Renault and Nissan, threw the automotive alliance into disarray with swirling distrust and jockeying for control. Senard, who had been CEO at tire maker Michelin, was brought into Renault as chairman in January. He filled the vacancy created by Ghosn’s departure there.
Senard conceded to shareholders that he found Nissan-Renault relations in a “much worse state than I thought.” He added that he had intended to eventually buy Nissan shares.
The Renault chairman also defended the proposed Renault-FCA merger. That deal fell apart in June after Renault’s largest shareholder, the French government, asked for more time to win Nissan’s backing. Nissan reportedly had planned to abstain from supporting a merger.
Senard said Nissan missed a golden opportunity to cash in on a blockbuster tie-up.
“This project, at the time, was incredibly beneficial to Nissan. That is the truth and reality. It would have been a wonderful project for Nissan and the alliance,” he said.
“In my mind, it was only a way to enhance and strengthen the alliance in the future. There was a wonderful benefit for this wonderful company of Nissan, notably in North America but not only.”
In the end, Senard warned, Nissan’s rivals will benefit from the proposal’s failure.
“You know who was very pleased after the announcement that this deal was stopped? All our competitors in the world,” Senard said. “They understood that if this deal had gone through, it would have been a very, very strong feature for the alliance.”