April 18, 2024

To Restore Reputation of a Renault Founder, Family Goes to Court

Family members, whose efforts at legal redress had been stymied since the de Gaulle provisional government nationalized Renault on Jan. 16, 1945, have seized on a new law that allows individuals to challenge the constitutionality of government actions in the courts. If they win, they could receive well over 100 million euros, or $143 million, from the state, their lawyer said.

The family insists, however, that cash is not the motivating factor.

“It’s not my priority to monetize this,” said Hélène Renault-Dingli, one of the seven grandchildren seeking to overturn the nationalization. “We’re fighting to win back his place, but no amount of compensation could make up for this violence that has been experienced by our family.”

No one disputes that Renault worked for the Germans; virtually all of France’s big industrial groups did. What has been contested since the liberation of the country is whether what happened to the company soon afterward was legal.

Renault, like the other major French automakers — Citroën, Peugeot and the truck maker Berliet — produced vehicles for the Third Reich. Renault’s tank unit was directly controlled by the Germans, while its auto and aircraft units, as with the other companies, were under French management, supervised by executives from Daimler-Benz.

Yet Citroën and Peugeot were not nationalized after the war; their owners were deemed to have been patriots, and Berliet eventually won back its private status.

Mr. Renault died in prison on Oct. 24, 1944, before he could face trial. He had aphasia, and the official report lists uremia as the cause of death. His family contends that he was murdered, although they have no proof.

The case illustrates the continued sensitivity here about the German occupation, in which Hitler imposed his will on the French nation from 1940 to 1944, turning the country into an appendage of the Nazi war machine. The Germans depended in large measure on the willingness of the French police, industrialists and managers to carry out their bidding.

On a more fundamental basis, millions of people faced regular choices about whether or how far to compromise with the occupiers to survive. That makes black-and-white assessments of many actions difficult.

“It’s extremely difficult to say to what extent Louis Renault should be considered a collaborator,” said Patrick Fridenson, a professor of business history at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris and the author of a book on Renault.

Mr. Renault, he said, “ran the risk of complete dispossession if he resisted the Germans.”

Monika Ostler Riess, a German scholar who investigated French and German sources while researching a book on Renault’s history during the occupation, said she had found no evidence that Mr. Renault collaborated any more than his peers.

“He just tried to save what he had, what he had built,” she said. The alternative to cooperating with the occupiers was to see the Germans take over his company, she added.

Mr. Renault, along with two brothers, founded the auto company in 1899. After traveling to the United States and seeing the revolutionary production techniques of Henry Ford, he introduced American management methods in France. During World War I, he led the development of battle tanks, including the Renault FT17, the first tank to employ a rotating turret, and was lauded as a patriot afterward.

By the time World War II began in Europe in 1939, Renault was a highly diversified conglomerate, the biggest industrial group in France, employing about 40,000 people. Mr. Renault held 96 percent of the capital, with family members and top managers holding the rest.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=fcefa4e30467a48eadd988b63c236f33

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