c.2013 New York Times News Service

c.2013 New York Times News Service

PARIS — Renault said Thursday that Carlos Tavares, the French automaker’s chief operating officer, was stepping down, amid speculation that he might be headed to a top job at a U.S. rival.

Tavares, 55, had long been seen as a possible successor to Carlos Ghosn, 59, Renault’s chairman and chief executive, and is the man credited with turning around Renault’s Japanese alliance partner, Nissan Motor.

Tavares leaves Renault at a time when the company, based in Boulogne-Billancourt near Paris, is struggling amid a prolonged slump in the European car market.

Tavares’ departure, which Renault said had been “mutually agreed,” is likely to fuel speculation that he is headed to Detroit. He could not immediately be reached for comment. But in an interview with Bloomberg News two weeks ago, Tavares suggested that such a move was in the cards, saying, “We have a big leader and he is here to stay,” in a reference to Ghosn.

“Anyone who is passionate about the auto industry comes to a conclusion that there is a point where you have the energy and appetite for a No. 1 position,” he said.

Les Echos, a French financial daily, reported Thursday that Ghosn had forced Tavares to leave over his remarks to Bloomberg. According to the newspaper, which did not identify its source, Ghosn convened a board meeting Thursday morning and gave Tavares his marching orders.

Renault did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the Echos report. A Renault spokeswoman, Rie Yamane, would say only that Tavares was leaving “in order to pursue other personal projects.” Ghosn will temporarily take over the functions of chief operating officer, Renault said. Yamane said the Renault board would meet soon to decide how to proceed, but that no date had been fixed for a meeting.

If he is thinking of a move to Detroit, Tavares, a native of Portugal, may have plenty of company. Both General Motors and Ford are due for a changing of the guard soon. The GM boss, Dan Akerson, is 64, while Ford’s chief executive, Alan Mulally, is 68.

“My experience would be good for any car company,” Bloomberg News quoted Tavares as saying.

Ford and GM did not immediately respond to requests for comment. A person with direct knowledge of the matter, who spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to comment publicly, said Tavares would not be going to GM.