Journalists outside the building of Lebanese Press Syndicate where former Nissan chair Carlos Ghosn is expected to hold a news conference in Beirut, Lebanon January 8, 2020. Picture: REUTERS/ALI HASHISHO
Journalists outside the building of Lebanese Press Syndicate where former Nissan chair Carlos Ghosn is expected to hold a news conference in Beirut, Lebanon January 8, 2020. Picture: REUTERS/ALI HASHISHO

Carlos Ghosn is getting ready to speak publicly for the first time since his extraordinary escape in December from house arrest in Japan to his childhood home of Lebanon, a journey which, at one point, apparently involved stuffing the world’s most famous automotive executive into a large black box to avoid detection.

The brazen operation has enraged the Japanese, who want Ghosn to stand trial on charges of financial misconduct. Ghosn isn’t backing down, and has reportedly promised to use his press conference on Wednesday to name and shame the perpetrators of what he says is a conspiracy.

While Lebanon’s jet-set hails Ghosn as a returning hero and Japan impotently calls for his return, there is a pretty obvious silence emanating from one country in particular: France.

Ghosn’s birthplace was Brazil and his family heritage Lebanese, but France is where he earned his academic stripes, climbed the corporate ladder at tyre-maker Cie Générale des Etablissements Michelin, restructured carmaker Renault, and became the face of its alliance with Japan’s Nissan Motor. Ghosn wasn’t just a French citizen, but France’s man in Japan: his dramatic arrest in 2018 came just as he had been exploring a full-blown merger of both companies, a particularly French ambition. Any prospect of score-settling on Ghosn’s part may put Paris in the spotlight as well.

You wouldn’t know any of this from France’s official reaction to the Ghosn saga, though. Since his arrival in Lebanon, Parisian officials and politicians have dropped some carefully manicured platitudes, with nary a peep from President Emmanuel Macron (perhaps understandably focused on bigger geopolitical issues in the Middle East).

“He has the right to consular support, like all French people,” junior economy minister Agnès Pannier-Runacher said last month. Economy minister Bruno Le Maire said this week, “When you are answerable to the law, you are not above the law.” And foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian may as well have been washing his hands of the whole thing when he said: “This is now a matter for Lebanon and Japan to sort out.” 

While Ghosn was behind bars and under house arrest, the French government’s priorities seemed to swing toward protecting the Renault-Nissan alliance

Is this really the best France can do? You don’t have to be a full-blown believer of Ghosn’s conspiracy narrative to see how Paris might have put up a more full-throated defence of the Frenchman’s treatment at the hands of the Japanese justice system. Only a few hours after Ghosn’s initial arrest in 2018, his successor at Nissan, Hiroto Saikawa, was able to publicly rail unchallenged against “the concentration of power” in Ghosn’s hands and the need to cleanse “negative aspects” he had left behind — hardly a presumption of innocence.

Ghosn then spent over 100 days in jail before being released on bail — only to be re-arrested a month later on new charges. The fact that prosecutors were able to build their case along the way, along with Japan’s near-perfect conviction rate, was hardly reassuring.

Political expediency seems to have won out. While Ghosn was behind bars and under house arrest, the French government’s priorities seemed to swing toward protecting the Renault-Nissan alliance and keeping the Japanese on-side. That Macron was facing violent street protests at home last year also made it rather easy for politicians to distance themselves from a wealthy tycoon whose favourite party spot was Versailles.

French officials are “in a bind,” as my Bloomberg News colleagues wrote. As for “consular support,” the most high-profile French visitor Ghosn seems to have secured is former president Nicolas Sarkozy, who had a pretty dismal relationship with Ghosn when he was in the Élysée Palace. “The Élysée’s silence is deafening,” Ghosn’s wife Carole said in October.

Ghosn’s press conference will probably be embarrassing for Japan and potentially damaging to anyone who may be exposed to reprisals, such as his former lieutenant Greg Kelly — still facing charges in Tokyo over his own alleged role in Ghosn’s alleged misconduct — and those accused of helping Ghosn escape. But it will also make uncomfortable viewing in France.

While Macron and his ministers are probably relieved that the world’s most famous fugitive businessman is sitting 4,000km away from Paris, if his wife’s push for a trial in France is genuine, it will be time for the French to start scanning the horizon for a tell-tale black box.

• Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Brussels.

Bloomberg

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