It’s lonely at the top these days for Gerard Le Fur, chief executive of Sanofi-Aventis. The French pharmaceutical group has lost one-fourth of its market capitalization over the last two years.

The company faces a class action in the US over an ­anti-obesity drug, and legal challenges from generic ­companies. Patents will soon expire on some of its ­blockbuster products, and its pipeline of new drugs fails to impress.

To top it all, both company’s biggest shareholders, French blue-chips Total SA, the oil company, and L’Oreal, the cosmetics empire, have long said they want out—with L’Oreal showing the way last week by selling 1.8% of the pharma group, lowering its holding to 8.7%.

Total itself said that the time has come to dispose of its 13% stake, but that it wants to do it in an orderly manner.

L’Oreal sold its stake in Sanofi-Aventis for €1.5 billion (about Rs8,850 crore).

Total officials said the oil giant wants to sell its stake in the pharmaceutical group in the “near term".

Sanofi-Aventis now faces the prospect of a scattered shareholder base, with poorly performing share price. Since the company was formed in 2004 when Sanofi-Synthélabo acquired Aventis, its shares have modestly underperformed a weak sector. They are trading at a 30% discount to those of its bigger Swiss rival Novartis AG, based on expected 2008 earnings.

Cheap shares with no controlling shareholder sounds like an invitation for a takeover bid. But it’s unlikely that Sanofi will be taken over any time soon, for at least two reasons.

The first is its mere size.

With an enterprise value of €85 billion, the French group would be quite a mouthful even for bigger ­companies such as Novartis, GlaxoSmithKline Plc. or ­Pfizer Inc.

The second obstacle is French politics.

In 2004, the then-finance minister Nicolas Sarkozy was the driving force behind the merger—pressuring Novartis to give up on its effort to take over Aventis. Sarkozy, who now is president, would probably do whatever it takes to prevent a foreign company taking over his cherished “national champion".

No price is too high for Gallic pride—certainly not shareholder suffering.