(Recasts, adds quotes from news conference, background)
By Chris Gallagher
FUKUOKA, Japan, June 9 (Reuters) - French finance minister Bruno Le Maire on Sunday said it was vital that Renault and Nissan Motor strengthen their alliance as the auto industry undergoes rapid change in the areas of electric and connected vehicles.
Speaking after a meeting of G20 finance ministers in the southern Japanese city of Fukuoka, Le Maire noted the synergies Renault has enjoyed with its Japanese partner which could help them take the lead in 21st century technologies.
“Looking at the past 20 years, we see that this quality of Renault has been reinforced by its partnership with Nissan,” he told reporters.
“Therefore it is essential not only to preserve, but to strengthen this alliance. That has always been the strategy of the state and it remains the strategy of the state as shareholder.”
Le Maire said the previous day in an interview with Agence France Presse that the French government was ready to reduce its 15% stake in Renault in the interest of bolstering the automaker’s alliance with Nissan Motor.
That comment came just days after Fiat Chrysler (FCA) withdrew its $35 billion merger offer for Renault blaming “political conditions in France.”
The French government had welcomed the merger plan but went too far by pushing for a series of guarantees and concessions that exhausted the patience of FCA, sources told Reuters.
Le Maire did not answer directly when asked if he would discuss the topic of the government’s Renault stake with his Japanese counterparts on a visit to Tokyo the next day.
“It’s a long-term horizon. I think for now, it’s wise to stick to the short and medium term,” he said, reiterating the importance of beefing up the alliance.
Le Maire’s visit to Japan comes amid a period of strained relations between Renault and Nissan, after the arrest of former boss and alliance architect Carlos Ghosn in November.
But the unequal relationship between them - smaller Renault has the bigger stake in Nissan - has long been a source of friction. Renault owns 43% of Nissan, while Nissan has a 15% stake in its French partner.
Le Maire will visit Tokyo on Monday to meet with business leaders and government officials including Finance Minister Taro Aso. (Reporting by Chris Gallagher; editing by Christopher Cushing and Jason Neely)