* Consumer goods groups under pressure over returns
* Yakult stake sale to be settled in March
* Danone to keep 7 pct stake in Yakult (Adds detail, background)
PARIS, Feb 14 (Reuters) - French food group Danone , which is facing investor pressure to boost returns, plans to sell a 14 percent stake in Japanese probiotics maker Yakult, both companies said on Wednesday.
The sale of two-thirds of Danone’s current Yakult holding could fetch about 1.5 billion euros ($1.86 billion), based on market prices.
Danone, the world’s largest yoghurt maker, said the sale would be carried out via a market transaction initiated by Yakult, which is expected to be settled in March. Yakult also announced a 36 billion Japanese yen ($335.76 million) share buyback program in which Danone will participate.
The French group will retain a 7 percent stake in Yakult.
Along with Swiss food group Nestle and Anglo-Dutch consumer goods group Unilever, Danone has been facing investor pressure to boost shareholder returns.
Danone has lagged the growth of some rivals, largely due to weakness in its European dairy business in the face of sluggish demand and private label competition.
Danone, whose brands include Activia and Actimel yoghurts and Evian water, has sometimes been touted as a takeover target.
In 2005, the French government stepped in to fend off a rumoured bid by Pepsico by publicly describing Danone’s business as a protected “strategic” industry.
Last year, Danone sold dairy business Stonyfield to Lactalis for $875 million after acquiring U.S. organic foods pioneer WhiteWave for $12.5 billion.
$1 = 107.2200 yen Reporting by Sudip Kar-Gupta Editing by Laurence Frost