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.
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.
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.