YOKOHAMA, Japan—For 13 years, the Renault-Nissan alliance looked to a single unflinching, supremely confident car czar to guide it through an increasingly complex global auto industry.
Now, with Carlos Ghosn out at Renault after his ejection from Nissan, the partnership enters a new era—if only because there is no final arbiter at the helm.
Ghosn seemed to hold the two companies together by sheer force of will—and then added Mitsubishi to the mix—appointing himself chairman of all three and the boss of the alliance. Now, leadership is fragmented, and what happens next is anyone's guess.
The upheaval hits the alliance as it embarks on a massive initiative to share platforms and parts on a wave of new vehicles expected over the next four years.
Ghosn—still jailed in Japan after his arrest—resigned as CEO and chairman of Renault on Jan. 23. The next day, Renault replaced him as chairman with outgoing Michelin chief Jean-Dominique Senard, and as CEO with Thierry Bollore, who had been filling in while Ghosn remained locked up on financial misconduct charges.
Nissan CEO Hiroto Saikawa welcomed the leadership change at Renault as a "significant step forward" into a "new chapter." But he conceded the alliance has much healing to do in the wake of Ghosn's downfall and his ouster as chairman at Nissan and partner Mitsubishi.
"A stable environment must be created and maintained. That's the biggest challenge ahead of us," Saikawa said at a late-night press conference after Renault's management shuffle.
"That is why we want to build trust and a new relationship of good communication between the boards of each company," he said. "That is the highest priority issue."
Indeed, Renault and Nissan must resolve deepening mutual distrust and reconcile differing visions for the future. Saikawa sees the turmoil as a chance to reform Nissan and the alliance. He wants Nissan to take an active leadership role in the partnership.
But in Paris, the French government is sending mixed signals about its intention to wield its influence as Renault's biggest stakeholder to exercise more control over Nissan.
Outsiders question how stable the new era will be.
"It is a shambles," said Christopher Richter, senior auto analyst at CLSA Asia-Pacific Markets in Tokyo. "You can't count out radical steps because Nissan has already done something radical—sent their chairman to jail and sent their alliance into disarray. There are two completely contradictory ideas of how this alliance should work. But for the alliance to prosper, somebody's got to be in charge. Ultimately, this is not a democracy."
Uncertainty swirls as the alliance tries its most delicate product convergence yet.
Under a six-year business plan ending in 2022, the group seeks to boost combined global sales to 14 million vehicles, from 10.6 million in 2017. About 9 million of those vehicles will be built on four common platforms, including a new shared electric car architecture. Common powertrains will be used in about 75 percent of those vehicles, up from about a third today.
Included in the rollout are 12 new electric vehicles.
The challenge won't be any easier with Ghosn gone, Nissan's head of global product planning, Philippe Klein, conceded. But Klein insists all sides remain focused on achieving the shared goals.
"We are not changing our product planning process at all," he said. "There is a lot of things moving, and it's going to require readjustment. But we are going to manage."
An alliance leadership crisis was sealed Jan. 22, when Ghosn lost another bail bid. The Tokyo court's latest decision will likely keep the embattled executive in detention for some time as he awaits trial on three indictments for alleged financial misconduct at Nissan.
Ghosn, who still nominally was Renault's CEO and chairman, maintains his innocence. But Renault realized it needed a leader free attend meetings and check email.
Ghosn lost his latest bail request despite a plea to accept "any and all" conditions, including an electronic ankle-bracelet monitor. He also pledged to surrender his passport, confine himself to an apartment in Tokyo and hire a private security detail to keep tabs on him.
He proposed a slew of stringent conditions after his initial bail request was denied the previous week. The new conditions, outlined in a statement circulated by a representative of Ghosn's family, emphasized Ghosn's commitment to staying in Japan and reporting for trial.
"I will attend my trial not only because I am legally obligated to do so, but because I am eager to finally have the opportunity to defend myself," he said. "I am not guilty of the charges against me, and I look forward to defending my reputation in the courtroom."
Ghosn added that he was also willing to pay whatever bail the court demands—even if it means selling his shares in Nissan to afford it.
The court—which had deemed Ghosn a flight risk who might also tamper with evidence—was unmoved. Ghosn's lawyer had conceded it would be unusual for someone in his situation, who maintains his innocence, to be granted bail before trial.
It could take several more months before the case heads to trial.
Focus now turns to the future of the alliance.
Publicly, Renault, Nissan and Mitsubishi support continuing the alliance.
"We respect each other as equal-footed partners," Saikawa said. "All the partners believe this."
Renault and Nissan extended olive branches expressing willingness to review corporate governance in the wake of the scandal and work together. Renault said Senard will be its point man representing the alliance and interacting with Nissan and Mitsubishi.
Nissan said it will hold an extraordinary shareholders meeting in mid-April to formally remove Ghosn and Greg Kelly, the American Nissan executive indicted as his alleged conspirator, as directors. Senard will be named a new director at the meeting, Saikawa said.
The move opens the door to possibly choosing Senard as Nissan's next chairman. Nissan has yet to appoint a successor to Ghosn as chairman. Saikawa has tasked its three independent directors with nominating a chairman from among Nissan's current board.
But if the decision-making stretches into April, Senard would be in the pool of applicants.
Saikawa said he wants Senard to weigh in on changes to Nissan's corporate governance to be voted on at an annual shareholders meeting in June.
"I want him to be involved in the process as soon as possible," Saikawa said, adding that he wants to oversee governance reform at Nissan and "pass the baton to the next leader."
But behind-the-scenes maneuvering has nonetheless jangled nerves. Stoking the unease was a report in Japan's Nikkei newspaper that said the French government, as Renault's controlling shareholder, wants to integrate Nissan with Renault under a holding company.
The notion of full integration is a nonstarter with Nissan. Saikawa wants Nissan to have a bigger voice in the alliance and a leadership role, not be absorbed as a subsidiary.
A delegation of French officials relayed the French government's intent to Japanese officials during a visit to Tokyo, the Nikkei said. But Saikawa said Nissan hadn't received any such proposal.
He also said now is not the time to discuss changing the capital partnership. Renault holds a controlling 43.4 percent stake in Nissan, while Nissan owns 15 percent of Renault.
"It's not the kind of agenda item we should be taking up now," he said. "The biggest priority is re-establishing trust between us."
French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire also tried to walk back talk of remaking the alliance.
"No shareholding re-balancing or modification of cross shareholdings between Renault and Nissan are on the table," he told that country's Journal du Dimanche news weekly.
Later, when announcing Ghosn's resignation, Le Maire said: "I'm sure that the alliance will stay.
Urvaksh Karkaria and Naoto Okamura contributed to this report.