Some 300 people gathered in Bordeaux yesterday to mark the suicide of a 57-year-old employee of France Telecom-Orange. The man, named only as Rémi L, set himself on fire early on Tuesday morning in the car park of the company's Bordeaux office, becoming the latest company employee to kill himself.
Unions say that 27 France Telecom-Orange employees committed suicide last year, and that more than 30 died over the previous two years. Two have been recorded this year. Christian Mathorel, a representative at the CGT union, said the company "is under-staffed and this has an effect on working conditions".
"We're all completely stunned," said Florence Bordes-Baillard, another union official. She said his colleagues are particularly shocked by his death because "he was not somebody violent in any sense... although he did get angry when he saw injustice in the workplace". The father of four had worked for the company for 30 years, but his accounting job at the Mérignac office disappeared in 2007 and he spent several years being transferred from one position to another, before moving to the city-centre office in 2010 to take up a new job in the company's health-and-safety department.
Rémi L left no message to explain his action but the eldest of his children said he believes his father's death was clearly linked to his situation at work, describing the cause as "the way France Telecom-Orange treated his career".
Ms Bordes-Baillard said that yesterday's gathering of Rémi L's friends and family was "very sad, very reserved". There was a sentiment "more of anger than of sadness for the family", she said, adding that the family members present asked company representatives to withdraw while a minute of silence was held.
French unions have blamed the frequent suicides by France Telecom workers on the privatisation of the company in 2004 and the subsequent loss of 22,000 jobs. In the wake of the deaths, Stéphane Richard was appointed chief executive last year and quickly set up a plan to improve working conditions, including counselling and surveillance programmes.
The French health minister Xavier Bertrand said yesterday that the situation at the company had improved, pointing to a sharp drop in similar cases compared with last year. Mr Mathorel, however, described the minister's comments as "indecent". "One suicide is one too many," he said. Ms Bordes-Baillard added that "efforts by the company can not be denied". But, she said, an extraordinary health-and-safety meeting would be held today to request officially an internal investigation.
Mr Richard said yesterday the company would classify Rémi's suicide as work-related, if this were the conclusion of an internal investigation. That investigation would focus on the personal and professional past of Rémi L and would question his family and members of his union.
But Mr Mathorel said this was the least that could be expected and that "it won't bring him back".
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