Shares in French automaker Renault and other car companies skidded again Friday amid fears that an emissions scandal engulfing Volkswagen may be spreading sector-wide.
Renault stocks had slumped by more than 20 percent during Thursday's session after unions reported that anti-fraud investigators had raided several of the company's sites, possibly looking for emissions cheating software on diesel engines, before closing around 10 percent lower.
On Friday, Renault shares closed 3.4 percent lower at 75.13 on the Paris stock exchange.
"Everybody wants to know whether Renault is cheating," brokers Aurel BCG said.
"The stock exchange context and the painful memories of the VW scandal have prompted investors to massively sell the stock," they added, noting that French government ministers had been trying to "put out the fire".
The French government has a vested interest in Renault's fortunes, owning a 19.7 percent stake in the carmaker.
It raised its stake in the company last year, disturbing the fragile balance between Renault and its alliance partner Nissan, and angering Renault-Nissan boss Carlos Ghosn.
Nissan has been pressuring the French government to cut back its stake, but instead Paris only agreed to restrict any use of its newly-won voting rights in a deal that kept the peace between both sides.
- 'Rot has set in' -
French Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron on Friday reiterated that the government was looking to sell five percent in the carmaker, but would only do so when the stock returned to "its normal price".
"Our intention today is not to sell shares only for the taxpayer to make a loss," Macron said. "We are going to remain very calm and do it without hurry, at the right time."
Since the raids on Renault outlets, the value of the state's stake in the company has been amputated by around half a billion euros, making an early stake sale unlikely.
"This is going to slow the process for the French government and it will make it more complicated to sell shares soon," said Bertrand Rakoto, an automotive industry analyst at Paris-based D3 Intelligence, quoted by the Bloomberg news agency.
"Renault's share price is not going to recover quickly," added Elie Cohen, an economist at French think tank CNRS, "because now the rot has set in".
Shares in other carmakers also dropped Friday.
Peugeot, France's biggest automaker ahead of Renault, fell 2.6 percent, Renault alliance partner Nissan's stock closed 1.9 percent lower in Tokyo, while BMW, Volkswagen and Daimler all dropped between two and 3.5 percent.
On Thursday, a government-appointed commission said that Renault's diesel cars failed pollution tests and investigators raided its facilities, raising fears the French carmaker could also be caught up in an emissions scandal.
Officials said however no pollution cheating software was found on Renault cars.
The leader of France's Green Party, however, said that the absence of cheating devices was not enough to get Renault off the hook.
"Renault cars are exceeding today's pollution limits by an enormous amount. Is that not cheating? I don't know," Emmanuelle Cosse told the iTele broadcaster.
But what is certain now is that Renault has put vehicles on the market, especially its diesel cars, that don't respect the norms and that means that consumers are being lied to," she said.
Renault said Friday that the test vehicles found wanting must have been either sold before current Euro 6 emissions norms came into force, or faulty.
"There are two possible hypotheses," a Renault spokesman told AFP. "Perhaps an old car was tested," he said, "or the car had a problem."
All new cars sold by Renault meet the Euro 6 norm, the spokesman said.
Germany's Volkswagen admitted in September having installed software on 11 million diesel vehicles worldwide that allows them to cheat pollution tests, sparking a scandal that could cost it tens of billions of dollars.
But with Renault having invested heavily in diesel engines, investors have been dumping its shares even if no illegal software was found.