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Ghosn flashes passion and defiance on Beirut stage

In a career defined by masterful speeches and self-assurance on stage, no appearance by Carlos Ghosn has been so widely anticipated. The lightning storm raging in Beirut as the former Nissan chairman took to the podium in the Lebanese Press Syndicate offices on Wednesday added to the sense of something momentous.

He had come, just days after spiriting himself from Japan to Lebanon, with a specific set of aims: demonstrating the failures of the Japanese justice system and showing that it had been weaponised by Nissan and the government to bring him down. In the space of more than two hours, he ranged broadly over his experiences at the hands of prosecutors to the uncertain future of the global corporate alliance he once ran. Here is what we did — and did not — learn from the event.

What else did we learn about the escape?

Mr Ghosn remained coy about the details of his dramatic flight from Japan. “I am not here to talk about how I managed to leave,” he said. But he did give a glimmer into his thinking.

The 65-year-old decided to engineer the escape plot — which involved former special forces and an elaborate transport through a private jet terminal while hiding inside a musical equipment box — after learning his trial could drag on for years. “You’re going to die in Japan or you’re going to have to get out,” he said. Being parted from his wife Carole — they spoke only twice since last April, both times filmed and monitored — was also deeply painful, he said. She was the first person he saw after arriving at his wife’s family home in Beirut last week.

During the escape, which began on Sunday afternoon and saw him land in Lebanon early on Monday morning, he described himself as being “nervous, tense, anxious, hopeful, but frankly . . . numb”.

He described his time in prison in detail, with a “tiny cell with no window”, 30 minutes outside a day, except at weekends because of guard numbers, and almost no access to lawyers or medication. He could only shower twice a week. He said he went six days without human contact during the new year break. When asked if he would recommend a packing case as a means of travel, Mr Ghosn smiled and moved on to the next question.

What new evidence did he show?

Mr Ghosn spent close to an hour presenting his case, including documents that he said proves the allegations levelled against him are baseless.

He faces four charges — two over allegedly failing to disclose some compensation, and two for allegedly using funds for personal gain.

Large images of the documents flashed on screen, with signatures from executives and key passages of text highlighted, but the slides moved too fast to allow proper immediate scrutiny for those in the room or watching the video link. Mr Ghosn said he is “ready to share the documents”, saying they would need to approach his team of Lebanese and international lawyers, though in the hours immediately following the session they have not been disclosed.

He also spent time defending decisions to hold a birthday party at the Palace of Versailles, and using Nissan-owned homes around the world, despite neither relating directly to the charges levied against him by Japanese prosecutors. These, he argued, formed part of a “character assassination” against him by Nissan, the prosecutors and parts of the media.

His defence was nothing if not impassioned — and clearly would form the pillar of his strategy if he does eventually stand trial. But without combing the documents, it was impossible to pass a verdict on his attempts to sweep away the allegations.

Will he stand trial?

The most frequent question was whether Mr Ghosn, who said he wants to clear his name, will see the inside of a courtroom and answer the allegations raised against him. In defiant mood, he said he was prepared to stand trial “anywhere I can be guaranteed a fair trial”. Before the hearing his legal team said he wants a trial in Lebanon, but during the session Mr Ghosn said he was prepared to stand trial in France, Brazil or Lebanon — countries where he is a citizen, and which do not extradite their citizens to Japan.

His legal team in Japan could not assure him of a fair trial, and he said that the judge in the case was often ignored by the prosecution team. “I didn’t escape because I was guilty. I escaped because I had zero chance of a fair trial.” He is now prepared to spend significant time in Lebanon, with his travel restricted by an Interpol red notice, as well as an arrest warrant for his wife, Carole.

He painted the presentation as the beginning of his defence — indicating there are more media engagements, possibly with more details and allegations — to follow.

Where does Mr Ghosn think his downfall leaves the Renault-Nissan alliance?

Under Mr Ghosn’s stewardship, Renault, Nissan and eventually Mitsubishi grew closer together and expanded to become, jointly, the world’s second-largest carmaker.

Its future has been in question since his arrest removed the glue that held the often-distrustful businesses together.

The two sides almost came apart last year, Renault’s new chairman Jean-Dominique Senard told the FT, but now the companies have plans to mend their strained relationship, with new leaders and promises to work together in the future.

With Fiat Chrysler, once a merger partner for Renault, tieing up with France’s PSA, the alliance has a fresh impetus to work together in an industry facing squeezed margins and higher costs.

Mr Ghosn on Wednesday said the partnership “can succeed without me,” but warned against running the businesses by consensus, something Mr Senard has proposed.

“What we see today is a masquerade of an alliance,” he said. “The alliance is not going to work with consensus. That I can tell you.”

He said the only three large carmakers over the past year that have fallen in market value were Nissan, Renault and Mitsubishi. Nissan’s shares have fallen about 40 per cent over the past year, while Renault has dropped by a third.

“Look at the results,” he added. “When I look at what happened for the last 13 months, with everything — I’m not reassured about the future of the alliance.”

How will the performance in Beirut play in Japan?

Despite Mr Ghosn’s assertion that Japan had successfully painted him as a “cold, greedy dictator” since his arrest, he remains — as he also claimed during his speech — a figure that many Japanese revere despite everything that has happened.

His performance at the press conference with its powerful, confident assertions and passionate delivery, provided supporters with exactly the Carlos Ghosn the country remembers from the two decades it lauded him as the saviour of Nissan.

But in the days since his escape to Lebanon, the mood in Japan has also shifted and for all its verve, this press conference is unlikely to reverse that. While his condemnation of Japan’s justice system was raw and convincing, his earlier claims that he would present hard evidence of collusion between Nissan and the government to bring him down did not immediately emerge. He claimed he would maintain his silence on the names of Japanese government officials out of courtesy for Lebanon’s diplomatic ties with the country, but some inside Japan questioned whether he had any direct evidence of government involvement.

For the Japanese authorities, still smarting at the humiliation of Mr Ghosn’s escape, the press conference was a calculated irritant. Within moments of its finishing, Japan’s Minister of Justice released a statement accusing Mr Ghosn of “propagating false information on Japan’s legal system and its practice”.

The deputy chief prosecutor, also palpably infuriated, said events had shown it was right to warn that Mr Ghosn was a flight risk, and that the allegations made during the press conference “completely ignore his own conduct”.

Additional reporting by Michael Pooler in Paris

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