Sanofi CEO’s Move to U.S. Adds to French Concern on Clout

The decision by Sanofi Chief Executive Officer Chris Viehbacher to relocate to the Boston area could fuel concern by the French government that the nation is losing influence over its biggest companies.

Viehbacher joins Elias Zerhouni, president of research and development, Chief Strategy Officer David-Alexandre Gros, and David Meeker, the head of the Genzyme unit, as members of the Paris-based company’s 12-person executive committee who have their primary residence in the U.S.

“This is a personal family decision made by Chris Viehbacher which will have no effect on the operation of the company,” Jack Cox, a spokesman for Paris-based Sanofi, France’s second-largest company by market value, said by phone today. Le Monde reported Viehbacher’s relocation earlier today and said one of his children began attending Northeastern University in Boston last year.

Still, the move is a further shift in focus by Sanofi away from its home country since Viehbacher’s signature acquisition of Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Genzyme for $20.1 billion in 2011. The decision comes amid General Electric Co.’s effort to buy Alstom SA, which prompted Economy and Industry Minister Arnaud Montebourg to say he was concerned about the loss of a corporate decision-making center in the country.

“It’s a French company running out of control of the French government,” Olav Zilian, an analyst at Helvea SA in Geneva, said in a telephone interview today. Montebourg declined to comment on Viehbacher’s move.

Dividing Time

Viehbacher, 54, is a dual German and Canadian citizen who had been based in Paris since becoming CEO in 2008. Sanofi’s U.S. headquarters are in Bridgewater, New Jersey.

Le Monde reported Viehbacher’s move earlier today.

Executive-committee members who remain in France include Chief Financial Officer Jerome Contamine and Pascale Witz, head of global divisions and strategic development.

Viehbacher’s move will place him in closer proximity to Genzyme, which is one of the company’s global research hubs and one of its fastest-growing growth drivers. Sanofi has cut research jobs in France, and in January paid $700 million for a stake in Alnylam Pharmaceuticals Inc., also based in Cambridge.

“Being closer to that from an operational perspective makes sense,” said Michael Leuchten, an analyst at Barclays Plc in London. “These companies are so large, so international. Where management sits officially doesn’t really matter.”

Vaccine Plant

Although Sanofi has cut jobs at home, investments in France haven’t ceased. As of last year, Sanofi had nearly 6,700 employees around Lyon, making it the biggest private employer there. The company invested 300 million euros ($409 million) in its new dengue vaccine plant in Neuville-sur-Saone, close to Lyon.

Top executives at some other companies in France’s CAC 40 Index also are based outside the country. Schneider Electric CEO Jean-Pascal Tricoire is based in Hong Kong, while Jean-Francois Palus, the No. 2 executive at luxury-goods maker Kering SA, is based in London.

Hollande took office in 2012 and put additional taxes in place that prompted some entrepreneurs and wealthy people to leave the country. The actor Gerard Depardieu moved to Belgium, while some entrepreneurs said they would start companies outside France. LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton SA Chief Executive Officer Bernard Arnault, a billionaire, applied for Belgian citizenship, though he said he would continue to pay French taxes.

Cox, the Sanofi spokesman, declined to comment on how Viehbacher’s move will change the amount of tax he pays in France.

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