Louis Renault (industrialist)

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Louis Renault

Renault in 1926
Born February 12, 1877(1877-02-12)
Paris, France
Died October 24, 1944 (aged 67)
Fresnes Prison, Fresnes, Val-de-Marne, France
Nationality French
Occupation Business
Known for co-founder of Renault
Relatives Marcel Renault brother
Awards Legion of Honor

Louis Renault (February 12, 1877, Paris, France - October 24, 1944) was a French industrialist, one of the founders of Renault and a pioneer of the automobile industry.

Renault built one of France's largest automobile manufacturing concerns, which bears his name to this day. Accused of collaborating with the Germans during World War II, he died while awaiting trial in liberated France toward the end of 1944 under uncertain circumstances. His company was seized and nationalized by the provisional government of France although he was never tried or convicted. His factories were the only ones permanently expropriated by the French government.[1]

In 1956, Time Magazine described Renault as "rich, powerful and famous, cantankerous, brilliant, often brutal, the little Napoleon of an automaking empire"; "vulgar, loud, domineering, impatient, he was a terror to associates, a friend to practically none," adding that to the French working man, Renault became known as "the ogre of Billancourt."[2]

Early life and career

Advertisement for Renault Frères

The fourth of six children born into the bourgeois Parisian family of Alfred and Berthe Renault, Louis Renault attended Lycée Condorcet. He was fascinated by engineering and mechanics from an early age and spent hours in the Serpollet steam car workshop or tinkering with old Panhard engines in the tool shed of the family's second home in Billancourt.

He built his first car in 1898, hiring a pair of workmen to modify a used 3/4 hp[3] De Dion-Bouton cycle which featured a revolutionary universally jointed driveshaft[4] and a three-speed gearbox with reverse, with the third gear in direct drive (which he patented a year later). Renault called his car the Voiturette. On December 24, 1898, he won a bet with his friends that his invention with an innovative crankshaft could beat a car with a bicycle-like chain drive[5] up the slope of Rue Lepic in Montmartre. As well as winning the bet, Renault received 13 definite orders for the vehicle. Seeing the commercial potential, he teamed up with his two older brothers, Marcel and Fernand, who had business experience from working in their father's button and textiles firm.[6] They formed the Renault Frères company on February 25, 1899. Initially, business and administration was handled entirely by the elder brothers, with Louis dedicating himself to design and manufacturing. Marcel was killed in the 1903 Paris-Madrid motor race, and in 1908, Louis Renault took overall control of the company after Fernand retired for health reasons. Fernand subsequently died in 1909.[6]


On 26 September 1918 Renault, then aged 40, married the 21 year old Christiane Boullaire (1897–1979), sister of French painter Jacques Boullaire. They had a son, Jean-Louis (24 January 1920-1982).[7] They kept homes at 90 Avenue Foch (formerly Avenue du Bois-de-Boulogne) in Paris and a country estate near Saint-Pierre-du-Vauvray, Rouen, in the department of Eure, called the Chateau de la Batellerie à Herqueville or simply Chateau Herqueville. The Chateau fronted on more than 3 km of the Seine, the entire grounds comprising 4,000 hectares. At Renault's request and expense, the small town hall of Herqueville was moved. Renault's personnel entered the residence via an underground tunnel.[note 1]

World War I, interwar period and developments

At the start of the First World War, in August 1914, in response to the then acute shortage of artillery ammunition Renault suggested that his car factories could manufacture shells using lathes rather than the more usual hydraulic presses. The resulting shells helped overcome the shortages, but as they had to be manufactured in two pieces they were inherently weak, leading to shortages in other areas: over 600 French guns were destroyed by premature explosions in 1915, and their crews killed or injured.[8]

Despite this, Renault was decorated with the Légion d'honneur after the war for the contribution of his factories' products to the military effort, among which was the revolutionary Renault FT-17 tank.

During the interwar period his right-wing opinions became well known, leading to various cases of labour unrest with proletarian avant-garde workers at the Boulogne Billancourt plant. He pleaded for a necessary union between European nations.

Louis Renault competed fiercely with André Citroën, whom he called "le petit Juif" ("the little Jew"),[4] growing increasingly paranoid and reclusive at the same time, and deeply concerned about the rising power of Communism and labor unions, eventually retreating to his home, a castle 8 mi off Mont-Saint-Michel.[4]

Renault remained in complete control of his company until 1942, dealing with its rapid expansion while designing several new inventions,[9] most of which are still in use today, such as hydraulic shock absorbers, the modern drum brake, compressed gas ignition, the turbocharger,[citation needed] and the taximeter.[citation needed]

World War II, arrest and death

In 1938, Renault visited Hitler,[2] and by 1939 he had become an important supplier for the French army. At the time Hitler's Wehrmacht invaded France in 1940, Louis Renault was in the U.S., sent by his government to ask for tanks. He returned to find the Franco-German armistice in place.[10] Renault was faced with the choice of cooperating with the Germans and possibly forestalling them from moving his factory and equipment to Germany, which would lead to an accusation of collaboration with the enemy.[11] He did, in fact, put his factories at the service of Vichy France, which meant that he was also assisting the National Socialists.[2] Over a period of four years, Renault manufactured 34,232 vehicles for the Germans.[2] Renault argued that "by continuing operations he had saved thousands of workers from being transported to Germany."[2]

During the National Socialist occupation of France, the company was under the control of the Germans,[9] with people from Daimler-Benz in key positions. Renault himself became unpopular among members of the French resistance. In March 1942, the Renault factories on Île Seguin had become top priority targets of the British and allied bombers of the Royal Air Force and were ultimately destroyed. Renault's health issues worsened, including his severely diminished renal function, and in 1942, he suffered aphasia, and was unable to speak or write.

Three weeks after France was liberated in 1944, Renault surrendered "on condition that he would not be jailed until indicted."[2] He was arrested outside Paris on September 22, 1944, on charges of industrial collaboration with National Socialist Germany.[9] At the time of his arrest, Renault "denied that his firm had received $120,000,000 from the Germans for war materials, said that he had kept his huge, much-bombed plant going at the request of Vichy to keep its materials and equipment out of National Socialist hands and to save workers from deportation."[12] He was incarcerated in Paris' Fresnes Prison[12] being already seriously ill at the time. The records for the exact period of his incarceration at Fresnes would later turn out to be missing.[13] Renault was moved on October 5[13] to a psychiatric hospital at Ville-Evrard in Neuilly-sur-Marne.[2]

When Renault's health quickly declined on October 9, 1944 he was again moved to a private nursing home at the clinic Saint-Jean-de-Dieuhe in the Rue Oudinot, Paris[10] at the request of his family and supporters, having gone into a coma.[7] He died on October 24, 1944, four weeks after his incarceration, still awaiting trial and having claimed to have been mistreated in Fresnes Prison, with his 1918 French Legion of Honor for exceptional contribution to the victory of the First World War, having been expunged by the Vichy régime.[14]

No autopsy was performed and the exact cause of Louis Renault's death remains unclear. An official report at the time gave the cause of death as uremia.[10]

Louis Renault is buried at his country home Chateau Herqueville, in Herqueville dans l'Eure.

See: Louis Renault's burial tomb


Louis Renault in Washington, June 1940

In October 1944, the provisional French government seized Louis Renault's company.[15] The Minister of Information, Henri Teitgen, said at the time this was not a confiscation, rather "it was merely a step to get French industry back into production. Later a commission would examine the books, confiscate war profits, bring charges."[15]

On January 1, 1945, four months after Louis Renault's death, an order of General Charles de Gaulle's provisional government decreed the dissolution of Société Anonyme des Usines Renault and its nationalization, giving it the new name Régie Nationale des Usines Renault (RNUR).

Thus, the company Louis Renault had created and protected from expropriation by the Germans, was nationalized on the official and very thin case of collaboration. Renault was charged posthumously with "guilty enrichment obtained by those who worked for the enemy",[10] a finding delivered without judicial proceedings, thus violating the rule of law and French juridical principles.

Aftermath and controversy

In 1944, after the expropriation of his company and his subsequent death, Renault's last will and testament was opened to reveal that he had left his company to his 40,000 employees.[16] At the time the company was nationalized, Renault's wife Christiane and her son Jean-Louis owned 95% of the company stock and had received nothing,[2] while the other stockholders were in fact compensated.[2] By 1956 "Renault [was] now France's largest nationalized company, employing 51,000 Frenchmen, making 200,000 automobiles and a profit of $11 million a year."[2]

The actual director of the plant during the war obtained a judgment in 1949 stating that he and the plant actually had not collaborated.

In 1956, Renault's widow, Christiane Renault, claimed that Louis Renault was murdered[17] and sought "to establish that Louis Renault was another of the more than 9,000 Frenchmen listed by the government as having been killed by "irregular executions" in the post-Liberation vengeance,"[2] and Louis Renault's body was subsequently exhumed for autopsy.[2] Madam Renault cited as evidence "a report showing Renault's urea content to be normal a week before his death, and an X-ray showing a fractured vertebra."[2] In 2005, The Daily Telegraph reported that "according to eyewitness and family accounts, the previously wiry little 67-year-old had been tortured and beaten," and that "a nun at Fresnes testified that she saw Renault collapse after being hit over the head by a jailer wielding a helmet. An X-ray organised by his family indicated a broken neck vertebra."[10][18]

In 2005, The Daily Telegraph said Renault had "felt that his duty was to preserve France’s manufacturing base. Military and Daimler-Benz officials arrived at the gates of his Billancourt factory to assess it for removal into Germany, together with its workforce. Renault fended them off by agreeing to make vehicles for the Wehrmacht."[10] According to Anthony Rhodes's Louis Renault: A Biography, Renault once said of the Germans "It is better to give them the butter, or they'll take the cows."[7] The 2005 Telegraph report said Renault attempted to save his company from displacement and absorption by Daimler-Benz:[10] "But for his efforts, Renault factories and employees would have been shipped to Germany."

Subsequent studies showed that while Renault had collaborated, "he also hived off strategic materials and sabotaged trucks. Dipsticks were marked low, for example, and engines dried and seized in action, an outcome much in evidence on the Russian Front."[10] Suggestions that Renault management had slowed production for German occupiers was countered with the argument that workers rather than management had organized the production slow downs.[19] A 2005 article in The Daily Telegraph said it could legally be argued that the Renault company, the "jewel in the country’s industrial crown"[10] was procured by theft, and that "admission that Louis Renault and his company had received rough justice would raise the question of compensation – huge compensation."[10]

In 2011, Patrick Fridenson, a business history professor at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris and the author of a book on Renault said “It’s extremely difficult to say to what extent Louis Renault should be considered a collaborator, he ran the risk of complete dispossession if he resisted the Germans.”[20] Scholar Monika Ostler Riess, who had studied French and German sources found no evidence that Mr. Renault collaborated any more than his peers. “He just tried to save what he had, what he had built. The alternative to cooperating with the occupiers was to see the Germans take over his company"[20]

Robert Paxton suggested in his 1975 book, Vichy France: old guard and new order: 1940-1944, that the Renault factory might have been returned to Louis Renault and his family, had he lived longer.[1] The Berliet truck factory in Lyon, remained in Marius Berliet's family possession, despite his having manufactured 2,330 trucks for the Germans.[1] Marius Berliet, who died in 1949, had, however, "stubbornly refused to recognize legal actions against him after the war."[1]

On July 29, 1967, Louis-Jean Renault, the only heir, received minor compensation, specifically for non-industrial, personal losses.[14] In 1982, representatives of the Organisation Civile et Militaire and their counterparts at the company Robert de Longcamps, worked in vain for the rehabilitation of Louis Renault, saying he had been "wrongfully accused of collaboration with the enemy", their requests to Robert Badinter, French Minister of Justice, unheeded.[14]

As it happened, Renault's were the only factories permanently expropriated by the French government.[1] As of 2005, Renault officials avoid mention of Louis Renault.[10] For the centennial in 1999 of the original Renault Frères company, celebrated by Régie Renault, the company ignored the grandchildren of Louis Renault.[10]

Despite the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which mandates just and preliminary compensation before expropriation, Louis Renault and his heirs were otherwise never officially compensated for their company. Renault returned to the private sector as a Société Anonyme (S.A) in 1996 when the French government sold 80% of the company.

In 2011, his heirs again sought to restore Renault's reputation and receive compensation for what they see as the illegal confiscation of his company by the state.”[20]

Notes and references

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 (1972, 2001) Vichy France: old guard and new order: 1940-1944, p. 343. Morningside Edition, Robert O. Paxton. “Renault's were the only manufacturer whose plants were confiscated permanently by the state, and indeed the Renault works, like the Berliet truck factory at Lyon, might have been returned to private hands, had M. Renault lived as long as M. Marius Berliet who built 2,330 trucks for the Germans but who stubbornly refused to recognize legal actions against him after the war. He died in 1949, and his firm remained in family hands.” 
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 2.11 2.12 "Foreign News: Was He Murdered?". Time Magazine. Feb 6, 1956. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,893292,00.html. 
  3. Yates, Brock. "10 Best Moguls", in Car and Driver, 1/88, p.47.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Yates, p.47.
  5. Tagliabue, John (July 2, 2000). "Renault Pins Its Survival on a Global Gamble, John Tagliabue". The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2000/07/02/business/business-renault-pins-its-survival-on-a-global-gamble.html?scp=2&sq=%22louis%20renault%22&st=cse. 
  6. 6.0 6.1 "Obituary: Ferdinand Renault". The New York Times. March 24, 1909, p. 9. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=9805E2DD1131E733A25757C2A9659C946897D6CF. 
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Biography: Louis Renault. Answers.com.
  8. Strachan, Hew (2006). The First World War. London: Pocket books, 167. ISBN 978-1-84739-678-5. 
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 Inventor Profile: Louis Renault. National Inventors Hall of Fame (2007). Retrieved on 2009-09-19.
  10. 10.00 10.01 10.02 10.03 10.04 10.05 10.06 10.07 10.08 10.09 10.10 10.11 "Louis Renault and the shame of a nation". London: The Daily Telegraph, Ian Morton. 14 May 2005. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/motoring/2735296/Louis-Renault-and-the-shame-of-a-nation.html. 
  11. H. DeWayne Ashmead, Ph.D.. The History and Development of the Renault Caravelle.
  12. 12.0 12.1 "People, p. 3". Time Magazine. Oct,2 1944. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,933116-3,00.html. 
  13. 13.0 13.1 Emanual Chadeau (01/03/1998). Louis Renault (excerpt), in German..
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 Louis Renault (industriel). Mfr.pschitt.info (1972, 2001). “En 1982, un résistant de l'OCM, et cadre de l'entreprise, Robert de Longcamps, réclamera en vain la réhabilitation de Louis Renault "injustement accusé de collaboration avec l'ennemi", mais sa lettre au Garde des Sceaux, Robert Badinter, restera sans réponse. Le 29 juillet 1967 une loi a reconnu le droit à l'indemnisation très partielle de Jean-Louis Renault, unique héritier direct de Louis Renault vis à vis de biens personnels non industriels. Louis Renault est titulaire de la Grand-croix de la Légion d'honneur pour sa contribution exceptionnelle à la victoire de la Première Guerre mondiale en 1918. Il a été radié par le gouvernement de Vichy.”
  15. 15.0 15.1 "Foreign News: Was He Murdered?". Foreign News: FRANCE, First Step. October 8, 1944. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,803298,00.html. 
  16. "Foreign News: The Cares of Ownership". Time Magazine. Dec. 18, 1944. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,778266,00.html. 
  17. You must specify title = and url = when using {{cite web}}.. The Washington Post (Feb 12, 1956). quote = The casket of Louis Renault, prewar owner of France's largest automobile factory, was raised from the family tomb today to press his widow's claim that he was murdered. | url = http://pqasb.pqarchiver.com/washingtonpost_historical/access/121254067.html?FMT=ABS&FMTS=ABS:AI&date=Feb+12%2C+1956&author=&pub=The+Washington+Post+and+Times+Herald+%281954-1959%29&edition=&startpage=A7&desc=Renault%27s+Body+Exhumed+In+Murder+Clue+Search}}
  18. Christine Renaults "J'accuse". Zeit, Indro Montanelli (24.7.2008).
  19. (1974) Language, politics, and society, p. 46-47. “The activities of Louis Renault led to the spectacular expropriation of his company by the State; what is less well known is that he died in prison awaiting trial, and therefore was never convicted. The car manufacturer Marius Berliet suffered the same fate of expropriation. At his trial in September 1945, Berliet claimed in his defence that his company had produced few cars for the German occupants than any other car producer: 2,239 cars for the Germans vs. 6,548 for French customers. This compared to Renault which had delivered 32,887 vehicles to the Germans and only 1697 to French clients, a pattern followed by Citroen (32,248 produced for Germans and only 2,052 for French clients)(Aron, 1974). Managers at Renault claimed for their part, that they had deliberately slowed down production, producing 7,677 fewer vehicles than the target of 41,909 vehicles imposed by the German occupants. The argument, however, cut no ice with the Confederation Generale du Travail (CVT), who maintained that the go-slow had been organized by the workers, not the management. Louis Renault may have been punished more for his attitudes than his actions, which were mirrored by those of many other employers. Robert Aron reports that when a Gaullist seeking his support for the Free French, Renault is alleged to have replied "De Gaulle connais pas!" (Aron, 1974, 234).” 
  20. 20.0 20.1 20.2 To Restore Reputation of a Renault Founder, Family Goes to Court. The New York Times, David Jolly and Matthew Saltmarsh, May 19, 2011. “Nearly 70 years after the pioneering automaker Louis Renault died in a French prison, accused of collaborating with the National Socialists, his grandchildren are seeking to restore his reputation — and gain compensation for what they say was the illegal confiscation of his car company by the state.”