In France someone commits suicide every hour, so what needs to be done?

France continues to have one of the highest suicide rates in Europe with new figures revealing someone takes their life every hour. But why does France still have such a high rate and how it can it be solved?

In France someone commits suicide every hour, so what needs to be done?
Photo: Zehun Jiang

The new figures from France's National Suicide Observatory released this week did contain some positive news.

From 2003 to 2014 – the latest figures available – the number of suicides in France fell by 26 percent throughout the country.

But there was still much to be concerned about.

In the year 2014 some 8,885 deaths were caused by suicide. That represents 24 each day or one every hour (down from 27 each day in 2012).

“Despite the 26 percent drop…France is among the European countries with the highest suicide rates – behind countries in the east, Finland and Belgium,” said the report.

The report also notes that the real number is almost certainly much higher as the 8,885 figure only refers to those whose official cause of death was given as suicide. The real figure could top 10,000.

In closer detail the report reveals some alarming stats. Among young people aged 15 to 24 suicide is the second cause of death after road accidents – representing 16 percent of fatalities among this age group.

Suicide hits men in France far more than women. Among men the rate is 23.1 out of 100,000 people compared to 6.8/100,000 for women.

High rates of suicide have long been a concern in France especially in certain professions, notably farmers and police who last year were hit by dozens of suicides prompting the government to come up with a prevention plan.

Certain tragic events have brought the problem into the public eye such as the elderly couple who checked into a chic Paris hotel and took their own lives in bed.


French government forced to act after new wave of police suicides

Jean-Claude Delgenes, the director of Technologia, a company which works to highlight health concerns for workers and who has long studied the phenomenon of suicide in France, says the government urgently needs to make the issue a priority.

“In France suicide has never been a national public health priority,” he told The Local.

“We are a long way behind countries like the UK, who have been working on preventing suicides for 50 years. We had to wait until the 2000s. Today we just don't talk about it enough.

“There's a kind of taboo that stops it becoming a national health cause,” said Delgenes.

Delgenes points to France's history to partly explain that taboo around suicide.

“Until the revolution, people who took their own lives had their bodies mutilated, dragged through the streets and buried outside town, because it was considered a shameful act,” Delgenes told The Local.

“This is partly the historical influence of Catholicism in France. For the church, committing suicide was a big sin and it was a question that was dealt with from a moral point of view rather than a scientific one,” he said, adding that this prevented mental health problems from being treated seriously.

Couple, aged 86, commit suicide in Paris hotel

But the biggest issue now he says is that France, whose health service has earned a global reputation, lacks a culture of prevention.

“We only look after people when something happens to them, when the problem is in front of us, but we don't act to prevent it,” he said. “It's the same when it comes to treating physical diseases like cancer or obesity.

“The prevention of suicide must become a national cause.”

Delgenes also pointed to a high rate in France of people trying to take their own lives more than once as a major worry and a sign that treatment is not working.

“A young person who has tried to take their life will be treated in hospital for three to four days, but they really need to be closely followed for weeks until the open door, which has allowed her to consider suicide is closed.”

READ ALSO: French farming hit by 600 suicides a year

French farming hit by '600 suicides a year'

He also believes France needs to carry out regular studies that look in depth at the link between unemployment, poverty and suicide so authorities can act more quickly to prevent dangers.

'Generalized anxiety'

“A kind of generalized anxiety has afflicted France for 40 years during which time we have been unable to deal with risin mass unemployment. There are two million people who have been out of work for over a year and one million who haven't worked for over two years.

“That weighs down on people's moral. People are depressed. They are scared of losing everything. There's a real social anxiety in France, he said.

Delgenes argues that the culture in France which “doesn't encourage risk taking and punishes failure” only heightens this anxiety, and that originates from the school system.

“Our school system is outdated. It needs modernizing. We need to allow our children to grow through failure and not punish them all the time,” he said. “Failure is a way to build ourselves.”

That view is shared by two academics who blamed the renowned “French pessimism” on the country's school system.

Academics from Grenoble School of Management (Grenoble École de Management), Hugues Poissonnier and Pierre-Yves Sanséausay that the way children are taught in schools in France gears them up for future gloominess in their professional lives.  
Pupils are scared of being punished and of getting bad grades, and fear the 'all powerful' teacher,they argue. This all leads to a damaging lack of self-confidence.

It seems the key to cutting the number of suicides in France is multifaceted, but the main thing the government needs to do is make it a priority.





France Telecom’s ex-boss faces court over string of staff suicides

France Telecom's former CEO Didier Lombard rejected any responsibility for the suicides of his employees when he faced court, a decade after a wrenching restructuring plan cost thousands of employees their jobs.

France Telecom's ex-boss faces court over string of staff suicides
Union representatives gather outside the trial of ex French Telecom CEO Didier Lombard on May 6th. Photo: Lionel Bonaventure/AFP

Lombard and other former executives are on trial on unprecedented charges of moral harassment that allegedly prompted 35 employees to take their lives in 2008 and 2009.

“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,” Didier Lombard told a Paris court on Tuesday.

“If I hadn't been there, it would have been the same, if not worse,” he said. “The problem was that we had to get our house in order.”

Now 77, Lombard resigned under a cloud in 2010 after several disparaging remarks including one referring to a “suicide fad” at the former state telecoms giant, since rechristened Orange.

In 2006, he told staff: “I'll get people to leave one way or another, either through the window or the door.”

Relatives of the suicide victims and other plaintiffs accuse Lombard and other officials of instituting systemic psychological pressure to push workers to quit, through forced transfers or demotions.

The restructuring plan involved cutting 22,000 jobs out of 120,000 over a three-year period.

On Tuesday, however, Lombard blamed a “media crisis” for overshadowing the success of his efforts.

“Newspapers said the company was in a terrible state, it wrecked morale,” he said.

“Profound Sadness”

In a letter he read to the court, Lombard also 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.”

But his remarks angered some former workers attending the trial.

“I can't believe it. It makes me sick,” said Yves Minguy, an IT specialist who suffered severe depression which he said resulted from intense pressure by his supervisors.

“Saving a company means the loss of human lives, and he couldn't do anything about it?” he told AFP after the hearing.

“It's staggering.”

During their investigation, magistrates focused on the cases of 39 employees –19 of whom killed themselves, 12 who tried to, and eight who suffered from acute depression or were signed off sick as a result of it.

Alongside Lombard, also in the dock on the same charge were his former number two Louis-Pierre Wenes and the ex-head of human resources Olivier Barberot.

Four others face charges of complicity in a trial set to be closely followed by businesses, unions and workforce experts.

If convicted, they could face a year behind bars and a 15,000-euro ($16,800) fine. The trial could last until July 12th.

Orange itself could be slapped with a 75,000-euro sanction if found guilty.

The trial marks the first time that representatives from a blue-chip company in France's CAC-40 stock index have gone on trial for moral harassment.