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Renault Chief Slain in Paris : Leftist Terrorist Group Suspected by Police

Times Staff Writer

The chairman of the state-owned Renault automobile company was shot and killed Monday night by a young couple as he walked near his home in the Montparnasse district of Paris.

The victim, Georges Besse, 58, was an industrial manager appointed by France’s Socialist Party but kept by the conservatives when they came to power this year. In less than two years, he had astounded skeptics by reducing the enormous losses suffered by France’s biggest auto maker and heading it toward a possible profit in 1987.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the murder of Besse, but police made it clear they suspected Direct Action, a clandestine, radical leftist organization that has bombed government offices and industrial firms in recent years and killed or tried to kill several government officials and businessmen.

The killing was the first terrorist murder in Paris since the rash of bombs that killed 11 people and injured more than 150 two months ago. But police officials said they believed the Besse murder had no relation with the September bombings, apparently carried out by a Lebanese group seeking the release of its leader from a French prison.

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Besse’s chauffeur, taking him from his office in the Renault plant in the Bologne-Billancourt suburb just west of Paris, had left the executive off about 150 yards from his home at about 8:30 p.m.

There were conflicting reports on the killing. According to some reports from the police and witnesses, Besse was walking toward his home when the assassins, a young man and a woman wearing raincoats, rode by on a motorcycle and fired four bullets at him. Some witnesses said they heard six shots and that the assailants had fired from a speeding car.

A daughter, one of Besse’s five children, heard the shots and rushed out of the house toward him. But Besse, hit in the head and chest, died at the scene.

Premier Jacques Chirac, Defense Minister Andre Giraud and two of the government’s top security officials rushed to the scene. Later, Security Minister Robert Pandraud chaired a meeting of anti-terrorism officials, but no details were revealed.

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The bombing presented a new challenge to Chirac’s government, which came to power in March with a promise to “terrorize the terrorists.”

Chirac told French radio he was “horrified by this heinous assassination,” adding: “Nothing can justify or explain this. Such behavior demands that all be done to find and punish those responsible.”

President Francois Mitterrand, visiting the West African country of Burkina Faso, issued a statement from Ouagadougou, saying: “France has lost a No. 1 in Georges Besse. This confirms once more that all our forces must unite against terrorism, without failing and without compromise.”

Renault owns 46% of American Motors Corp., and in Detroit, AMC President Joseph E. Cappy said: “Everyone at American Motors is shocked and deeply saddened by the death of Georges Besse. . . . Mr. Besse was a strong supporter of American Motors, and his counsel will be deeply missed.”

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Industrial leaders, who have been the targets of previous attacks by Direct Action, reacted with a good deal of understandable consternation.

“One can’t understand,” said Yvon Gattaz, president of the French Assn. of Employers, “why this blind violence is turning against economic leaders who have never been involved in politics.” An official of his organization was the target of an attempted assassination by Direct Action last year.

Direct Action murdered Gen. Rene Audran of the Ministry of Defense in January, 1985, and attempted but failed to kill another defense official and the vice president of the French Assn. of Employers in two other assassination attempts in 1985.

In July, 1986, Direct Action planted a bomb in a bathroom in a police headquarters building in Paris, setting off a blast that killed a senior police officer. The terrorist organization also has bombed almost 20 other government and private company offices in Paris this year, usually accusing the government or company officials of involvement with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Israel or South Africa.

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Besse was the fifth president of Renault since the government expropriated it in 1945 and jailed its president, Louis Renault, for collaborating with the Germans during World War II. Premier Laurent Fabius, a Socialist, appointed Besse in January, 1985, after Renault, once one of the most profitable companies in France, showed a loss of 12.5 billion francs (about $2 billion at the present rate of exchange).

Although Renault still had a debt of $10 billion at the time of his death, Besse had managed to halve the annual loss and win the confidence of the conservative Chirac government that replaced the Socialists.

When news of the murder reached him, Minister of Finance Edouard Balladur told the National Assembly: “France is losing a great servant. No man better than he was capable of turning around the situation at Renault. I was waiting with confidence the results of his efforts.”

The turnaround at Renault, however, had antagonized the labor unions because Besse accomplished most of reductions in losses by cutting jobs. Barely a few months after taking over the company, Besse announced that he would eliminate 21,000 jobs from the work force of 160,000.

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Besse, who came from a working-class family and graduated from the Ecole Polytechnique, France’s most prestigious engineering school, began his career as a mining engineer. He spent much of his career in government-run companies and won the reputation in later years as one of the country’s most efficient managers.

Many industrialists regarded him as the founder of the French nuclear power industry. In 1982, he was appointed president of an unprofitable, state-owned aluminum and chemical corporation and turned it into a profit-maker in two years. That led to his appointment at Renault.

Despite the strong possibility, after last year’s attack on the vice president of the employers association, that he might be a terrorist target, Besse refused protection.

“He had always refused to be accompanied by bodyguards,” Gattaz, the employers’ association leader, said.

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