Renault is once again facing unwanted scrutiny over its wartime record after the founder’s grandchildren began legal proceedings against the French State to restore his reputation, which they claim was tarnished by allegations that he collaborated with the Nazis.
Louis Renault’s heirs are suing the Government over what they say was the illegal nationalisation of the company in November 1944 after claims that it had backed Germany during the Second World War.
They are demanding compensation denied at the time because of Mr Renault’s alleged collaboration with Hitler’s regime, potentially reigniting an awkward debate over the extent of the company’s cooperation with the Wehrmacht.
Mr Renault, a racing driver and inventor who founded the car company with his two brothers in 1899, died in custody awaiting trial two months after the liberation of France in 1944. He was accused of collaborating with Hitler, imprisoned and beaten by guards, and developed aphasia, a psychological disorder that prevented him from speaking. A month after his death, Charles de Gaulle, France’s wartime leader, signed a decree confiscating his 96.8 per cent stake in Renault on behalf of the State. But Mr Renault’s eight grandchildren say that de Gaulle had not right to seize his holding without compensating his family.
“The decree of confiscation… is contrary to the fundamental principles of the right of property”, Maître Lévy, the lawyer representing Mr Renault’s grandchildren, said.
“No other company was the object of such a treatment, not even those where the managers were found guilty of collaboration”, he said.
The proceedings have been made possible by a procedure introduced last year that entitles individuals to challenge the constitutionality of French legislation.
Maître Lévy told the Times that he was seeking a court order designating an expert to evaluate what M. Renault’s stake “would have brought the family since 1945”.
Although Renault’s market capitalisation is 11.6 billion euros (£10.1 billion), the founder’s grandchildren said that their main aim was not the money but to restore his reputation.
Last year, they took action against a war memorial that had displayed a photograph showing Mr Renault alongside Hitler at the Berlin Motor Show in 1939. The organisers were fined £2,000 and ordered to remove the photograph by Limoges Appeal Court.
Mr Renault’s family admit that the business made about 30,000 lorries for the German army and spare parts for Wehrmacht tanks during the war. But they said that he had no choice after Hitler occupied France and requisitioned its factories.
Hélène Renault-Dingli, the founder’s granddaughter, said : “Renault did not make weapons and was not more zealous (in its support for Germany) than Peugeot or Citroën”.
However, Annie Lacroix-Riz, the emeritus professor of history at Paris University, claims that the group financed the extreme Right in France before the war and collaborated with Hitler.
The French car industry was “fully mobilised in the service of the German war economy”, she said.
Renault is not the only French group embroiled in a row over its war record. SNCF, the state railway network, was recently forced to issue an apology for its role in the deportation of Jews to Nazi concentration camps.
(See) Ignominious death of a French industrial genius.