To hear the guys at Alcatel tell it, the French telecoms equipment group’s proposed takeover of Lucent, its US rival, is one of the happiest engagements in the history of transatlantic mergers.

Six months into integration talks, there have been no real disagreements over whose products to keep, whose to ditch, who gets which job and no one (important) has walked off in a huff. Moreover the deeper the teams dig into the two businesses, the more unnecessary fat they find. Getting €1.4bn ($1.8bn) in cost savings now looks like child’s play, and could even prove eventually to be on the cautious side.

The only hold-up is understandable – the happy couple must win the approval of US politicians for a deal that gives shareholders in a French company majority ownership of a business with some delicate military contracts.

While waiting for the US Committee on foreign investments to give its blessing, the two companies are finalising their finely balanced top team and an announcement is expected soon.

From an industrial point of view no one can quibble with the logic of creating a group with global scale to offset the power of heavyweight incumbent operators.

Product gaps will be filled, R&D will be much more sharply focused and at last Alcatel will be able to compete with the likes of Nokia and Ericsson in 3G. Is it any wonder then that this week Vodafone finally put Alcatel on its list of favoured global suppliers?

But the fact is that, though both companies are well suited, disappointment has already begun to creep in. Lucent’s profits warning soon after the deal was announced may not have been a total shock to Alcatel executives, but it did not please the French company’s shareholders who wonder whether they are paying too much.

The good news is there could be much more to come than the cost savings.

Nevertheless, it will be in less tangible areas that the merger faces its biggest challenges.

Then there is Pat Russo, Lucent’s American boss who will be the new company’s chief executive. For the moment she is being fêted as a novelty in France, set to become the first woman to run a CAC40 company, and an American to boot.

But she should not underestimate the cultural differences she will face. Essentially, Lucent is a US company and, while Alcatel is global, it is at heart quintessentially French.

That may be down to its canny and very well connected executive chairman Serge Tchuruk, who knows better than many how to play the Parisian political game. But his central role in translating this arcane world to the Lucent boss could play out either way.

Ms Russo, who is still struggling with her grasp of the French language, could appreciate his efforts or come to resent the need for an intermediary.

She will also have to learn to live with Mr Tchuruk’s obvious reluctance to down tools and take a back seat. The 69-year-old Alcatel chief, who has in the past had trouble handing his company over to previous potential successors, put off retirement to stay on as non-executive chairman of the new company.

This may be wise in the early days, but he also clearly plans to take an active interest in his executive team. The question is whether his definition of active simply does not translate for his new colleagues.

Berlin blustering

What is happening in Germany? Long a nation where business and politics simply do not mix, recent events reveal a shift that is unsettling some across the Rhine. On Thursday, chancellor Angela Merkel demonstrated interventionist skills worthy of her French counterparts by insisting Germany would not tolerate any bias in the forthcoming restructuring at EADS, the Franco-German aerospace group. This threat came from a government which, at least for the time being, has no shares in EADS – Paris at least owns 15 per cent of the troubled group.

Ms Merkel’s tough talk is only the latest in a series of government blusterings. When the Taiwanese group BenQ decided to shut down the mobile telephone business acquired from Siemens the previous year, Ms Merkel upbraided the German company for selling out in the first place and laid a moral duty on its chief to help the 3,000 workers facing unemployment. Then there was Ms Merkel’s official support for Eon in its bid for Endesa when she met Spanish prime minister José Luis Zapatero. Deutsche Börse’s interest in Euronext has also privately been backed by Berlin politicians.

Berlin’s track record is dismal when it comes to intervention. Remember former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s desperate bid to get the banking sector to consolidate. He was rudely ignored. In effect all the power and influence over business lies with the regional governments

That does not mean nothing will ever change. There is a feeling that the old habit of leaving business to get on with things could leave the country at the mercy of other more interventionist governments such as France and Spain. Ms Merkel will have to find a way to respond to this growing unease when in fact her government can do little about it.

european.comment@ft.com

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