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By Paul A. Eisenstein
After the Nissan council voted unanimously to overthrow Carlos Ghosn as chairman during an emergency meeting at its headquarters in Yokohama, Japan, some industry observers questioned what exactly involved the case.
The partner council of France's Nissan alliance, Renault, has chosen not to overthrow Ghosn as its own CEO, pending clear evidence. Sources told NBC News that they were questioning why Ghosn was arrested.
The 64-year-old executive was arrested Monday in Japan and accused of not reporting nearly 45 million dollars in income and misusing company assets. The Brazilian-born executive could remain detained in Tokyo for another 10 days before the prosecutor decides whether to file an official indictment.
This might involve "a lethal drink of politics and intrigue of international business," said Joe Phillippi of AutoTrends Consulting. While he warned that it might be a "stretch," he quickly added that "it is not out of the realm of possibility" that the allegations made against Ghosn were motivated by internal company disputes.
That echoed in half a dozen other conversations with people in or close to Nissan, with sources echoing the fact that there was a sharp fall between Ghosn and Saikawa, who replaced Ghosn as CEO of Nissan last year.
"Companies can usually give you a slap in the hand" when you play a little loose by using things like company jets or billing items to your expense account that are not justified, said a Nissan veteran, "but they don't" Their president was arrested and put in jail. "
If the case is not solid, some industry observers estimate that Saikawa could end up being forced out on its own. The Nissan CEO was clearly confident in the allegations made against Ghosn during a press conference at the company's headquarters on Monday, stating, "Apart from regret, I feel very disappointed, frustrated, hopeless, angry and upset."
But he also might have hinted at the personal element in the case by showing that Ghosn had gained too much strength and might remain in his position for too long.
Ghosn joined Renault in 1996, brought in to improve the finances of a French company. He put it in black in just one year, got the nickname, "Le Cost Killer." Ghosn was then sent to Japan in 1999, after Renault bought a 38.6 percent stake in Nissan, to implement a major change plan. Originally named chief operating officer, Ghosn was soon appointed as CEO after Japanese carmakers began to make a profit and cut their crippling debts. He was later named chief executive at Renault, and held the same position in the umbrella organization now known as the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance.
In his various posts, Ghosn not only had to deal with running a broad business empire but also with political pressure related to the French-Japanese group. In 2017, the French government cut back on ownership in Renault – partly because of Ghosn's maneuver – up to 15 percent. But it still holds significant influence and has pressured it to further consolidate car manufacturers based in Paris and Nissan, something that French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire re-emphasized this week.
If anything, Nissan had pushed a little independence under Saikawa. But Reuters quoted company sources as saying "There is a feeling of crisis in the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (Japan) which at this level Nissan and Mitsubishi will be seized by the French government."
Some observers warn that things can go the other way for an alliance if the French press is too harsh – or Japanese maneuvers too aggressive to prevent takeovers.
Earlier this week, Mitsubishi CEO Osamu Masuko said the alliance that Ghosn had strung together was in danger. "I think no one else on Earth like Ghosn can run Renault, Nissan and Mitsubishi," he said.
Those on the side of the alliance of France and Japan have tried to downplay these concerns. Saikawa expressed its desire to maintain what has become a massive positive relationship which last year pushed Volkswagen to become the world's best-selling automotive group based on unit volume.
While those on the Renault side continue to demand evidence of Ghosn's alleged crime, the company also issued a statement stressing "his dedication to the defense of the interests of Renault in the alliance.
"But there is no doubt that the loss of Ghosn will be a big challenge. He is & # 39; the glue that holds Renault and Nissan together, & # 39;" said Max Warburton, an analyst at Bernstein. "It's hard not to conclude that there might be a gap between Renault and Nissan."
If there are further questions about justification for Nissan's accusations and Ghosn's arrest, some sources warn that the chasm can turn into the ocean. And that could be a new, uninteresting spotlight on Saikawa himself.