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French phone operator hit by 24th suicide

France Telecom ordered to act 'more humanely' after another employee dies

An epidemic of suicides in one of France's largest companies claimed another victim yesterday when a 51-year-old man threw himself from a bridge. He become the 24th France Telecom employee to take his own life in the past 19 months.

The dead man, married with two children, left a note in his car blaming the "atmosphere at work" for his decision to leap from the bridge over a motorway near Alby-sur-Chéran in Haute-Savoie, in the French Alps.

Like many of the France Telecom suicides, the man had been asked to change jobs as part of a restructure of the once state-owned company. Earlier this month – after the 23rd suicide – the Labour Minister, Xavier Darcos, summoned the head of France Telecom and demanded a more "humane" approach to the rebuilding of a company in which the state is still the largest share-holder.

Trade union leaders said that the man who had taken his life in Haute-Savoie was known to have been "under pressure". He had been moved from a job dealing with business clients to a call-centre at Annecy which made "cold calls" to offer services to subscribers.

"This is shameful," Patrice Diochet, from the moderate CFTC Catholic trades union federation said yesterday. "He was working in a call-centre which was known to be insufferable. There was no interest in people as individuals, no humanity. They only cared about figures. The employees were treated like minced meat."

The prefecture, or national government offices for the region, said that the dead man had "left a letter for his wife in which he said that the atmosphere at work had driven him to this act".

After denying for months that a suicide problem existed, France Telecom agreed this month to halt all compulsory job changes and to appoint 200 new staff counsellors. Doubts remain about the nature of the epidemic or whether it should be considered an epidemic.

France Telecom employs just over 100,000 people in France. The French suicide rate is 26.4 a year for every 100,000 men and 9.2 per for every 100,000 women. On those figures, the company points out, the number of suicides in France Telecom since February 2008 is below the national average.

Psychologists have also suggested that the pattern of suicides may have been made worse by a "copy-cat effect" encouraged by media coverage. All the same, the government has let it be known to France Telecom senior management that something has to be done.

The company's president and chief executive, Didier Lombard, went directly to Annecy yesterday after the death became known. France Telecom was spun off as a publicly owned company in 1996. It has been restructuring to take account of consumers' move away from fixed land lines.