French telecoms giant Orange on trial over wave of employee suicides

Over a three-year span 19 people took their lives and 12 attempted to kill themselves

Samuel Osborne
Monday 06 May 2019 16:53 BST
Then chairman and CEO of France Telecom, Didier Lombard, and seven former or current managers are going on trial accused of moral harassment
Then chairman and CEO of France Telecom, Didier Lombard, and seven former or current managers are going on trial accused of moral harassment

France’s main telephone and internet company Orange and its former CEO are going on trial over a spate of suicides a decade ago.

Over a three-year span, 19 people took their own lives, 12 attempted suicide and eight cases of serious depression were reported among employees.

On Monday, a Paris court began a long-awaited trial accusing the telecoms giant and seven former or current managers of moral harassment and related charges.

The company, which was then called France Telecom, was undergoing job cuts and modernisation efforts at the time of the suicides.

The former president of France Telecom, Didier Lombard, is on trial along with former human resources director Olivier Barberot and former deputy executive director Louis-Pierre Wenes, in the largest trial to date in France for moral harassment on a company-wide scale.

The defendants are suspected of having “degraded work conditions of personnel that risked hurting their rights and dignity, altering the physical or mental health (of personnel), or compromising their professional future”.

Four other officials are suspected of complicity in moral harassment.

Moral harassment can be punished by a year in prison and a fine of €15,000 (£12,800). Orange itself is also on trial, and the court could order the company to grant additional damages to each civil party in the case.

An investigation into the wave of employee suicides between 2007 and 2010 was opened following a complaint from the Sud union. At the time, Mr Lombard allegedly referred to the deaths as “the fashion”.

Mr Lombard, who was replaced as France Telecom chief in 2010, has denied all the charges. He 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.

France Telecom, once a state-owned monopoly, transformed into a private company in the 2000s. Mr 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, the indictment says the company imposed “excessive and intrusive control” on employees, assigned workers to demoralising tasks, failed to provide training, isolated staff and used “intimidation manoeuvres or threats and pay cuts”.

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Mr Lombard’s lawyer, Jean Veil, says his client is innocent because he could not possibly know what was going on in France Telecom’s vast network of more than 100,000 employees.

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Additional reporting by Associated Press

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