PARIS – An editor for Auto Plus, a weekly French automotive buff book, is in jail this week over the publication a year ago of spy photos featuring a future small Renault SA vehicle.

Bruno Thomas, editor of the magazine’s “Nouveautes” (”What’s New”) section, spent Wednesday night in jail somewhere in Paris, held incommunicado by the prosecutor investigating what Renault claims is an act of industrial espionage.

In bringing the charges, “our intention is clearly to protect the industrial secrets and intellectual property of Renault in a tense competitive context and not to attack a magazine,” says Christian Husson, Renault’s top lawyer, in a statement. “For the rest, we leave to the courts the manner of handling the case.”

However, the arrest of Thomas “is not at all what we wanted,” a Renault spokesman tells the media.

“Renault a year ago brought charges against an unknown person for industrial espionage that resulted in photos and information about future cars being published in Thomas’ section,” he says. “The judge chose his methods, and they are, effectively, spectacular.”

Arresting a journalist over spy photos is sensational enough, but the case has taken on a political dimension that has boosted it into a higher category of interest. Two French ministers have come down on opposite sides of the case.

Christine Lagarde, minister of the economy, agrees with the court’s “determined action” on “the principle of the protection of inventions, patents, marques, designs and models,” because “this is a sector in which France truly has a solid asset.”

Christine Albanel, minister of culture and communication, says she will press the government to strengthen freedom-of-the-press laws. “I am always ill at ease when a journalist is arrested and a newspaper is searched, and I want to remind you of my intangible attachment to the principle of freedom to inform.”

About 10 police officers and a prosecutor from Versailles reportedly searched the offices of Auto Plus for eight hours, taking computers and documents with them as they sought clues to the offending photographer’s identity..

Laurent Chiapello, the magazine’s executive editor, tells the media he doesn’t understand the search.

“This (publication) has been around for 60 years,” he says. “Since the automotive press was born. For the auto makers, sometimes (editorial content) is to their benefit, sometimes it’s not.

“When it is to their benefit, they are happy to have us. When it (isn’t), we see they have other methods. We are very surprised by this procedure and by these reactions.”

Says the Renault spokesman: “It is a very delicate situation for us. Journalists are not our friends, but we work together. We didn’t charge a journalist or the magazine with spying.”

Renault, as with other auto makers, often talks about its future products when it suits the company’s strategy, he notes. There is a symbiotic relationship with magazines and newspapers that specialize in the auto industry, with controlled “leaks” of future information.

In the Auto Plus case, says the spokesman, the information was too far into the future and too exact, and the auto maker wants to catch the person who took the photo, as he probably works at Renault.

Auto Plus defends its action and that of its editor, who is being supported by Reporters Without Borders, an international group based in France that most often deals with journalists arrested by political opponents.

What’s more, Auto Plus is not changing its policies toward publishing photos that auto makers have yet to release.

This week’s issue has a picture of the Renault Alpine, the little coupe whose existence the auto maker continue to deny, along with a photo of the Megane Scenic 3 due in 2009.