A wave of employees at a French telecom giant died by suicide years ago. Now company officials are facing criminal charges.
The toll is shocking: 19 suicides, 12 suicide attempts and eight reported cases of serious depression among employees at France’s main telephone and internet company over three years. In a long-awaited trial in Paris, the former president of France Telecom defended himself Tuesday against accusations of moral harassment.
Once a state-owned monopoly, France Telecom transformed in the 2000s into a private company, now known as Orange. The company’s president at the time, Didier Lombard, launched a restructuring plan aimed at shedding 22,000 jobs, but most employees were still considered civil servants and so were protected from layoffs.As it sought to reduce staff, an indictment says the company imposed “excessive and intrusive control” on employees, assigned workers to demoralizing tasks, failed to provide training, isolated staff and used “intimidation maneuvers or threats and pay cuts.” In 2006, according to AFP, Lombard allegedly told staff: “I’ll get people to leave one way or another, either through the window or the door.”
An investigation into the wave of employee suicides between 2007 and 2010 was opened following a complaint from the Sud union. At the time, Lombard allegedly referred to the deaths as “the fashion.”Lombard, who was replaced as France Telecom chief in 2010, has denied all the charges. “The transformations a business has to go through aren’t pleasant, that’s just the way it is, there’s nothing I could have done,” he said in court Tuesday, according to AFP.”If I hadn’t been there, it would have been the same, if not worse,” he said, the news agency reported. “The problem was that we had to get our house in order.”He also said newspapers “wrecked morale” by saying the company was in a “terrible state,” according to AFP. However, in a letter he read to the court, Lombard expressed his “sincere and profound sadness that this situation involuntarily contributed to the fragility of some, to the point that they carried out this irreparable act.”Lombard has attributed the suicides, attempted suicides and cases of depression to “local difficulties with no links to each other” and no relation to the company’s job cuts at the time. The indictment lists the employees who took their lives or tried to, some on the job.Michel, 50, left a note about his decision to end his life on July 29, 2009, according to the prosecutor’s report. Michel’s note denounced “the permanent sense of urgency, overwork, absence of training, the total disorganization of the company” plus “management by terror.””I’m taking my life because of my work at France Telecom. It’s the only reason,” the note said.