PARIS — French prosecutors issued an international arrest warrant on Friday for Carlos Ghosn, the former chief executive of Nissan and Renault who is living as a fugitive from the Japanese justice system, as part of an investigation into alleged abuse of corporate assets and money laundering.
French authorities are interested in nearly 15 million euros (about $16.2 million) in suspected payments made between the Nissan-Renault-Mitsubishi auto alliance and its car distributor in Oman, Suhail Bahwan Automobiles, or SBA. They say Mr. Ghosn abused his position as head of the world’s biggest carmaker to channel millions of euros in Renault funds through the Omani operation for his personal use, including the purchase of a 120-foot yacht.
In an interview late Friday with France’s BFM TV, Mr. Ghosn, appearing feisty and defiant at his home in Lebanon, denied the charges and said he “must be presumed innocent.” He added that there was “absolutely no diversion of funds” and that all money paid to the Omani distributor had been “based on confirmed contracts.”
The arrest warrant was one of five issued on Friday against Mr. Ghosn and current owners or former managers of SBA, said a spokesperson for the French public prosecutor’s office in the Paris suburb of Nanterre, which has been conducting the investigation.
Mr. Ghosn, a onetime titan of the automotive industry who holds French and Lebanese passports, has been living as a fugitive in Lebanon since 2019, when he fled across the globe, traveling part of the trip hidden in a box, to escape what he called “injustice and political persecution” in Japan. The authorities there had arrested him in late 2018 on charges of financial misconduct, including underreporting his income to evade taxes while heading Nissan.
An internal review by Nissan at the time found that from 2011 to 2018, Mr. Ghosn authorized over $30 million in discretionary payments to a business partner in Oman. Mr. Ghosn’s representatives have insisted that the payments were for business purposes only.
Mr. Ghosn’s flight to Lebanon was strategic: The country does not have extradition treaties with Japan or France, meaning the authorities do not need to honor their arrest requests.
France has been conducting its own investigation parallel to that in Japan, and prosecutors visited Beirut, Lebanon’s capital, twice in the past year to question Mr. Ghosn. He would need to travel to France to be formally indicted and to gain access to the details of the charges made against him.
Mr. Ghosn, who has repeatedly said his arrest was part of a coup by Nissan to force him out, said Friday that he was surprised to learn of the French charges because he had been cooperating with investigators He added that he “smelled something fishy” about the timing of the arrest warrant, which was issued just two days before the French presidential election.
“There was not a penny from Renault or Nissan that was unjustly given to me, directly or indirectly,” he added.
Mr. Ghosn said he was eager to clear his name and hoped to eventually go to France to “demonstrate the truth” to judicial authorities. In the meantime, he said, he is teaching at a university in Lebanon and has gotten involved in helping entrepreneurs with start-ups.
At the same time, he said, he spends a lot of time working on his legal file in hopes of proving his innocence, and is writing a book and participating in the filming of a movie about his life “for the restoration of my reputation and especially the restoration of the truth.”
In addition to investigating Mr. Ghosn’s ties to the distributor in Oman, French prosecutors are examining a Dutch corporate entity that Mr. Ghosn led, Renault-Nissan B.V., which Japanese authorities have said he used to finance extra benefits for himself, including acquiring several homes with Nissan money and throwing a lavish wedding party for himself and his bride in 2016 at Versailles.
Last month, a Japanese court convicted Mr. Ghosn’s American former deputy at Nissan, Greg Kelly, of helping him conceal part of his compensation from regulators.
A judge sentenced Mr. Kelly to six months in jail for his role in hiding Mr. Ghosn’s pay during one fiscal year, but cleared him of involvement in similar efforts during other periods spanning almost a decade. The sentence was suspended for three years, allowing Mr. Kelly to walk free.