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Politics

Carlos Ghosn set to square off against new French president

Nissan's capital structure talks may resume if Macron toughens stance at Renault

TOKYO/PARIS -- As Emmanuel Macron celebrated his win in the French presidential election on Sunday over Marine Le Pen, markets breathed a sigh of relief, sending stocks and the euro higher.

The victory of the centrist Macron over his far-right rival, who had vowed to pull France out of the European Union, has for the moment slowed the anti-EU wave of populism that threatens to swamp Europe.

But business leader Carlos Ghosn, chairman and CEO of Renault, may have mixed feelings about the outcome, given his past dealings with the new president and his government's roughly 20% stake in the automaker.

Ghosn-Macron row

As of Monday, neither the French automaker nor its Japanese partner Nissan Motor had commented on the election. During the campaign, however, Ghosn maintained that Nissan "will not accept any move on capital structure as long as the French state remains a shareholder" in Renault.

"The day the French state decides to get out, everything is open," Ghosn added, showing his resistance to the French government's involvement in the Renault-Nissan alliance.

Analysts viewed Ghosn's remarks as a thinly veiled warning to Macron not to use his election victory as the basis for meddling in the alliance.

The relationship between Ghosn, who also serves as Nissan's chairman, and Macron dates back to 2015 when the French government of outgoing President Francois Hollande sought to deepen its involvement in Renault's management under the so-called Florange law of 2014, which doubles voting rights for long-term shareholders.

As the minister of the economy, industry and digital affairs, Macron led the Hollande administration in negotiations with Renault, asserting that the government was not a self-bargaining shareholder. Passage of the law left the government with 28% voting rights at Renault in 2016, making it the company's largest and most influential shareholder.

Remaining resentment

Ghosn strongly opposed the French government's move as he felt it could lead to questionable management policies. To block government intervention, Ghosn went so far as to explain Japanese corporate law, under which Renault would lose voting rights at Nissan if Nissan acquired more Renault shares.

At the time, a French government leader publicly criticized Macron for his highhanded approach to negotiations.

The squabble ended at the end of 2015 with the French government agreeing not to interfere in the management of Nissan. But Ghosn and Macron still remain at odds.

Under Ghosn, Renault and Nissan do not seek to control management of companies in which they invest, but to instead supplement management resources in specific areas.

Ghosn's philosophy of looser alliances "did not naturally match" Macron's firmer, more hands-on attitude, a former Nissan executive said.

Nissan stock rose moderately on Monday following Macron's election victory while other Japanese stocks accelerated their upward trend.

"The question of Renault shares will remain as is for now as parliamentary lobbying is given high priority," said Takaki Nakanishi, president of automobile-focused Nakanishi Research Institute.

Nevertheless, potential risks remain.

The next flash point will come at Renault's general shareholders meeting in mid-June. At the 2016 meeting, 54% of shareholders, including the French government, voted against Ghosn's 7.25-million-euro ($7.91 million) paycheck. Although the vote was non-binding, Ghosn subsequently accepted a pay cut.

If the Macron administration decides to play tough at Renault, talks on changing Nissan's capital structure may reopen.

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