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SUICIDE

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.

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SUICIDE

Bosses at French telecoms firm to stand trial over suicide of 35 employees

A decade after a wave of suicides at France Telecom in which 35 employees took their own lives, the telecoms giant and its former CEO go on trial on Monday for "moral harassment".

Bosses at French telecoms firm to stand trial over suicide of 35 employees
Trial of former boss of France Telecom Didier Lombard begins on Monday. Photo: AFP

The case will look at what was behind the deaths that occurred between 2008 and 2009 when Didier Lombard was at the helm of the company, which is today known as Orange.

The trial opens at the Paris criminal court nearly seven years after Lombard and France Telecom were charged with harassment in what was a first in France.

Also in the dock are a handful of former senior executives accused of harassment and others facing charges of complicity in a trial which will likely be closely followed by business, unions and workforce experts. 

The company faces a maximum fine of €75,000 if convicted

Expected to last more than two months, it could result in a conviction for institutional psychological harassment.

Despite France's labour laws, which are some of the strongest in the world, depression, long-term illness, professional burnout and even suicide have become increasingly common.

Unions and management accept that 35 France Telecom employees took their own lives between 2008 and 2009 and Lombard stepped down as a result of the deaths.

Formerly a public company, France Telecom was privatised in 2004, a move which led to major restructuring and job losses.

Prosecutors say the company and its chief executive at the time introduced a policy of unsettling employees in order to induce them to quit.

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

In July 2008, a 51-year-old technician from Marseille killed himself, leaving a letter accusing the bosses of “management by terror”. Two months later, a 32-year-old woman killed herself in her Paris office as horrified colleagues looked on. 

Lombard, who served as chairman and chief executive between 2005-2010, inflamed the situation with remarks that came off as extremely callous, 
admitting he had committed “an enormous gaffe” when he speaking of a “suicide fad”.

The remark was seen as a final straw, and he resigned in March 2010.

The investigating magistrates' summary of charges, a copy of which was seen by AFP, it says Lombard put in place “a corporate policy aimed at undermining the employees.. by creating a professional climate which provoked anxiety”.

It outlined multiple haphazard restructures, forcing people to move around geographically and repeatedly pushing incentives for them to resign. 
 

Also on trial is Louis-Pierre Wenes, Lombard's former number two and Olivier Barberot, who handled human resources, with another four facing charges of “complicity”. 

If convicted, they could face a year behind bars and a €15,000 fine. 

And France Telecom could be slapped with a €75,000 sanction if found guilty of “moral harassment” which is defined as “frequently repeated acts whose aim or effect is the degradation of working conditions”. 

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