Mr Pinault, through his holding company Artemis, is believed to be considering a bid to acquire Suez, which analysts expect would destroy any hope of the GDF merger.

The GDF/Suez saga has already faced many challenges and delays. Despite winning early French government backing for the move, opposition MPs, unions and the French courts have imposed delays on the combination, which original plans had forecast would have been completed by the end of 2006.

Currently, the merger is on hold until the summer due to a French court ruling. This alone could defeat the plans of the two utilities, as French elections before the summer could bring a completely different political will to bear on the matter.

However, fresh speculation involving Mr Pinault could make political changes later this year irrelevant. According to reports, Artemis is considering making a E70 billion bid for Suez and, if successful, the company then plans to break up the utility, selling its energy operations to GDF and its environmental business to Veolia.