So the rumours were right – just two days after announcing he would leave his post as president of North American pharmaceuticals at GlaxoSmithKline, Chris Viehbacher has been named as a replacement for Gerard Le Fur as chief executive at Sanofi-Aventis.

The French drugmaker confirmed that Mr Viehbacher, 48, will take over from Dr Le Fur, 58, from December 1. The latter, who has only been chief executive for 18 months (and head of R&D before that) is staying with Sanofi and “will continue to provide his competences” to the Paris-based group “in the scientific domain”.

In an e-mailed statement, Sanofi’s board noted that the evolution of the pharmaceutical sector “requires the key players to acutely redefine their strategy”. It says that R&D “must be better adapted to the new regulatory and economic constraints of the markets” and emerging markets need to be exploited.

Thirdly, Sanofi said that the development of “other activities related to medicines and healthcare must be actively continued”. Given this scenario, the board, with the agreement with Dr Le Fur, “wished to organise a change of the general management of the group, and thereby to entrust the realisation of this strategy to a person able to implement it in the long term”.

Sanofi added that “the financial conditions related to the above mentioned decisions” will be posted on the internet “in the coming days”, which suggests that the firm is announcing some major changes and not just at the top. The change of CEO has gone down well with investors however and Sanofi shares closed up almost 7.2% to 50.90 euros.

The relationship between Dr Le Fur and his predecessor and still chairman Jean-Francois Dehecq had been a tense one for some time, and the poor performance of the company’s share price over the last year increased the pressure on the CEO. It had also been reported that two major shareholders in Sanofi, the oil giant Total and the cosmetics group L’Oreal (who have both been reducing their holdings) had withdrawn support for Dr Le Fur, while fears have been voiced that the firm’s pipeline is not strong enough to cope with looming patent expiries on Plavix (clopidogrel), Lovenox (enoxaparin) and Taxotere (docetaxel).

There has been no comment as yet from Mr Viehbacher who lost out in the three-horse race to Andrew Witty in the battle to replace Jean-Pierre Garnier as chief executive at GSK last year. He has dual Canadian and German citizenship, is a fluent French speaker and was general manager at Glaxo Wellcome France during the 1990s.

The hiring of an executive with a great deal of experience on both sides of the Atlantic has been greeted positively by analysts who believe it could signal a major ‘internationalisation’ of the philosophy at Sanofi.