UPDATE 1-Renault says has reasons to doubt spying happened

* COO says company has reasons for doubt — Le Figaro

* Would reinstate executives if no espionage took place
(Adds Renault CEO)

By Helen Massy-Beresford

PARIS, March 3 (Reuters) – Renault SA (RENA.PA: Quote, Profile, Research) said for
the first time on Thursday it had some reasons for thinking it
might have been tricked into believing it had been a victim of
industrial espionage.

“A certain number of elements lead us to doubt,” Renault
Chief Operating Officer Patrick Pelata told French newspaper Le
Figaro in an interview published on its website.

Renault fired three executives and lodged a legal complaint
in January over suspicions of industrial espionage targeting
its high-profile electric vehicle programme, amid fears
information had been passed to a foreign power.
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Renault’s lawyer said earlier on Thursday that French
intelligence services were still probing the existence of bank
accounts in Switzerland and Liechtenstein as part of the
inquiry and dismissed reports the French carmaker had been
tricked.

The existence of the possible accounts is a key part of the
case against the three men, all of whom say they have done
nothing wrong and are taking legal action against Renault.

In the newspaper interview, Pelata said Renault had arrived
at “two hypotheses.”

“Either we are confronted with a case of espionage and a
senior security executive is protecting his source despite
everything. Or Renault is the victim of a manipulation, which
we don’t know the nature of, but which could be a fraud,” the
COO told the newspaper.

“In this case, if all the doubts are lifted, we will
propose the reinstatement of the three executives and, in any
case, Renault will be very careful to make good any
injustice.”

Pelata said that, in either case, “the company is a
victim.”
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Reports Renault had been tricked or manipulated surfaced
after Pelata discussed the case with Prime Minister Francois
Fillon this week.

Jean Reinhart, the French carmaker’s lawyer, earlier told
French radio it was too early to say espionage had not taken
place.

“Nothing has come back to us for the moment, which means
that this morning we are unable to say whether we have been
manipulated or not,” he said.

The case threatened to spark a diplomatic spat when news of
the sackings broke in January after a government source said
investigators were following up a possible link with China in
initial probes before a formal inquiry was launched.

Renault and the government both played down the China
talk.

The scandal also strained relations between Renault, which
is 15 percent state-owned, and the government, as the carmaker
came under fire for not informing the authorities of its
suspicions soon enough and carrying out its own investigation
first.
(Additional reporting by Gilles Guillaume and Daniel Flynn;
editing by David Holmes and Andre Grenon)