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Novartis: Aventis merger feasible

But drug giant says France must remain neutral

PARIS -- Swiss drug giant Novartis AG said yesterday that a white knight bid for France's Aventis SA would make sense -- but only if the French government changed its ''negative attitude" toward the possible merger.

Novartis said its own feasibility study had endorsed a combination with Aventis -- currently the target of a $57 billion hostile offer by a smaller French rival, Sanofi-Synthelabo SA.

''This study concluded that a business case is viable," Novartis said in a statement, issued in response to a request for information from France's Financial Markets Authority. But it added: ''The negative attitude of the French government has influenced Novartis' consideration to a point that it will only enter into a negotiation phase if formally invited by the Aventis supervisory board and if the French government assumed a neutral position."

Aventis, the maker of allergy pill Allegra and the blood-clotting drug Lovenox, confirmed it was talking to Novartis about a possible merger.

Since Sanofi announced its bid for Aventis on Jan. 26, French ministers have repeatedly indicated that the government favors a merger between the nation's two main drug companies.

The deal would create the world's third-largest pharmaceutical company in sales terms, behind US behemoth Pfizer Inc. and Britain's GlaxoSmithKline PLC.

But a merger between Aventis and Novartis -- maker of high blood pressure drug Diovan and antileukemia treatment Gleevec -- would rank number two.

After Novartis first publicly declared its interest in a friendly merger with Aventis, French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin took the government line a step further, invoking France's ''national interest" in comments widely interpreted as a warning shot to Novartis. Raffarin said Aventis' position as a world leader in vaccines was important to France's ability to respond to the threat of bioterrorist attack.

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