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Nissan's Ghosn crisis

Ghosn pushed to backseat as Paris tackles discontent

Millionaire ex-Nissan boss too toxic for Macron as he faces national protests

A protester wearing a yellow vest walks among tear gas on the Champs-Elysees Avenue in Paris on Dec. 8.   © Reuters

PARIS -- As Tokyo prosecutors prepare to indict former Nissan Motor Chairman Carlos Ghosn as early as Monday, the man who still leads iconic French carmaker Renault can expect little help from Emmanuel Macron.

The French president, badly shaken by the "Yellow Vest" protests that have upended France and forced him to suspend a proposed fuel tax increase, may not want to be seen standing up for a multimillionaire executive accused of financial fraud.

"The protests have put the government in a very awkward position," said Eric Vernier, a researcher specializing in money laundering and tax evasion at the Institute of International and Strategic Relations in Paris. "How can they defend someone who may have committed fraud of hundreds of millions of euros?"

Macron appears to have decided to avoid the topic altogether. He has not mentioned Ghosn -- publicly or on social media -- since promising to remain "extremely vigilant" about the 19-year-old global alliance, considered one of the most successful in the automotive industry, immediately after Ghosn's Nov. 19 arrest.

French Economy and Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire, who initially was at the forefront of the issue, has also failed to mention Ghosn since a television interview on Nov. 27.

While Macron did make succinct mention of the Renault-Nissan alliance during a bilateral meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the sidelines of the G-20 summit last month, media reports suggested that the French president only sought to reaffirm his wish that the alliance remain "stable."

In the days after the scandal broke, French politicians appeared willing to defend Ghosn to some degree, insisting on a presumption of innocence and asking Japanese authorities to share what proof they had. Now, struggling in the polls and with his authority undermined, Macron may want to make an example of Ghosn in an attempt to claw back his standing with voters.

Former Nissan Motor Chairman Carlos Ghosn   © Reuters

For weeks, France has been consumed by the Yellow Vest protests, a grassroots movement enraged by the weight of taxes they say are eroding their purchasing power. Originally sparked by a hike in fuel prices, the protests have given voice to wider discontent over rising poverty and inequality.

"There is a feeling of injustice when people are asked to contribute more and more while seeing very rich people evading taxes," said Vernier, the researcher.

After three weekends of violence where the government appeared to hold its ground, Macron decided last Tuesday to suspend the January tax hike for six months. Some see it as Macron's first defeat since his election a year and a half ago.

According to a recent survey by French polling service Ifop, Macron's approval rating is at an all-time low, dropping to 23% from 29% in a month. Macron's falling popularity has followed a pattern similar to that experienced by his predecessor Francois Hollande, dubbed France's least-popular president, during his first 18 months in office.

Around 30,000 people were reported to have come out in protest on Saturday, the fourth consecutive weekend of confrontations. Some 90,000 police officers were deployed across France in preparation for the demonstrations.

In Paris, where the clashes appeared most violent, the detained Ghosn drew little sympathy from the protesters. The former Nissan boss, whose high salary has often been criticized in France, did not seem to be a popular figure among the Yellow Vests.

"I don't have a problem with the state intervening [in] Renault's business," said a 56-year-old salesman. "I believe in capitalism with the help of government. But I don't think it's normal that the government protects him. He's too well paid."

A 32-year-old engineer agreed. "I know he saved Nissan when the business was at its worst. But if he violated laws, justice should be served without the French government's interference," he said.

Togo Shiraishi in Paris contributed to this article.

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