By Helen Massy-Beresford
PARIS (Reuters) - Judo enthusiast Patrick Pelata knows all about falls, and he looks almost certain to take one to protect his boss as an embarrassing spying debacle engulfs Renault's <RENA.PA> boardroom.
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As Chief Operating Officer, 55 year-old Pelata took a leading role when the company shocked the car industry in January, sacking three top executives and going public with an investigation into industrial espionage.
In a newspaper interview on Friday he hinted that his job is on the line now that there are doubts about the affair and a possibility that the allegations may be unfounded.
Economy minister Christine Lagarde said Renault could face "consequences" from the episode, and Pelata said they would be accepted "up to the highest level of the company, that is to say up to myself.
A Renault spokeswoman declined to comment.
Ghosn's right-hand man, Pelata holds engineering degrees from two of France's top engineering schools as well as a PhD in socio-economics.
He joined Renault in 1984 as a workshop manager at the Flins plant near Paris, and rose swiftly through the ranks, becoming a member of the Renault management committee in 1998.
In 1999, Pelata, a judo enthusiast who also has a pilot's license, went to work for Nissan in Tokyo.
Pelata, who comes from a tiny village near the Pyrenees, met Brazilian-born Ghosn at university, but their different styles belie their long history.
Pelata, with his sharp suits and rectangular-framed glasses, is softly spoken, while Ghosn's oratorical style shows he relishes the reputation as a car industry guru that he earned by transforming Nissan from a money-losing basket case into a carmaking success story.
The source close to Renault said Pelata's exit would allow Ghosn to stay.
"This will go high up, but to avoid it going up to the CEO, I think Patrick Pelata will serve as a barrier," the source said.
But Pelata might not be the only one to go.
"He coordinated the activity, but he didn't do it alone," the source added.
(Reporting by Helen Massy-Beresford; Editing by Andrew Callus)