PARIS Two weeks after it emerged that French drugmaker Sanofi-Aventis had its eye on U.S. biotech Genzyme, staff and investors are still left guessing as the companies remain tight-lipped.
France's fourth-biggest company by market value could be poised to make what might be the biggest corporate swoop on the United States by a French group since media conglomerate Vivendi's ill-fated purchase of Seagram in 2000.
That deal was later unwound under the weight of acquisition debts.
With external growth a top-three priority as drug patent expiries loom, Sanofi has, according to people familiar with the situation, made an initial $18.4 billion approach to the world's most successful developer of drugs for rare diseases.
But with no comment from either company, it has been left to analysts to debate how much the group might have to pay to clinch a deal.
While the battlefield is in the United States, all is quiet at the two companies' Paris offices -- Sanofi's industrial glass-and-steel headquarters in southeast Paris contrasting with Genzyme's smaller red-brick building overlooking tennis courts in calm, tree-lined Saint-Germain-en-Laye.
Asked about the mood among Genzyme colleagues, one person who works at Genzyme, who asked not to be named, said there were concerns about the impact of a takeover and doubts about how the cultures of the two companies would fit.
"I imagine everyone is worried about losing their jobs at all levels, in all divisions, in all the back-office functions," the person said.
A senior Genzyme staff member said employees did not know whether the transaction was going to happen or not and did not know enough to comment. He also asked not to be named.
Sanofi investors, meanwhile, have been left hoping it will not pay too much for Genzyme, with some urging the group not to pay more than about $19 billion.
Genzyme, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has been in France since 1994 and has 500 employees there, including a site in Lyon. About 12 miles away, around 900 staff work at Sanofi's Paris headquarters, out of more than 100,000 in over 100 countries.
French transatlantic mergers have often been plagued by cultural differences, which will likely be among the challenges facing Sanofi.
Telecom equipment maker Alcatel has lost money every year since its $14 billion takeover of Lucent in 2006. The merged group's U.S. Chief Executive Patricia Russo caused a stir by initially refusing to take French lessons and was ousted in 2008 after failing to break cultural barriers.
France has also been vehement in defending strategic industries from foreign buyers, sometimes maintaining defensive state shareholdings, such as in car parts maker Valeo.
France has sought to ring-fence certain sectors to help them to repel takeovers from abroad, including biotechnology.
Sanofi-Aventis itself is a product of such thinking, with Sanofi buying Aventis in 2004 after the French government encouraged a domestic deal to stymie a possible takeover by Switzerland's Novartis.
Genzyme employees won't be reassured by the "Smiling Killer" tag that some Sanofi staff have given German-Canadian Chief Executive Chris Viehbacher over his plans to shed 4,000 positions by 2013 at the French group.
Still, since his arrival at the end of 2008, Sanofi has sought to value differences in culture at the companies it has acquired, saying it will boost creativity and innovation, rather than seeking to integrate them into its business as it used to.
One senior employee at Sanofi's headquarters who asked not to be named described Viehbacher as "extremely charismatic" and said she "totally" trusted him.
Even so, she added: "You don't get to this level in a multinational without being a killer."