Former executives at France Télécom go on trial over staff suicides

Former executives at France Télécom, the telecoms firm now known as Orange, have gone on trial over a spate of suicides among staff a decade ago.

The accused are facing charges linked to “moral harassment” and allegedly creating a climate that drove at least 19 employees to take their own lives.

The trial is expected to last two months and is the largest case in which a major company and its former directors have been brought to court to justify their treatment of staff.

In the dock are Didier Lombard, the former president of France Télécom – which became Orange in 2013 – and six other former senior executives. All deny their actions led to any loss of life.

Lombard, his number two, Louis-Pierre Wenes, and the former director of human resources, Olivier Barberot, are accused of “moral harassment”, and the others of complicity in it.

The court will examine how the executives carried out a restructuring of the company in 2006, two years after it was privatised, during which 22,000 jobs were cut and 14,000 workers changed jobs.

France Télécom directors are accused of deliberately creating a culture of anxiety among staff and attempting to push some out by isolating, intimidating and demoting them or transferring them away from their families.

According to the record of a directors’ meeting in October 2006, published in Le Parisien, Lombard told senior managers: “I’ll get them out one way or another; through the door or through the window.”

Didier Lombard, former CEO of France Télécom, arrives at the Paris criminal court.

Didier Lombard, former CEO of France Télécom, arrives at the Paris criminal court. Photograph: Charles Platiau/Reuters

The court will hear details of how, from 2008 on, at least 19 members of staff took their own lives, 12 attempted suicide and a further eight were diagnosed with severe depression or were signed off for related illnesses.

In one case in 2009, a 32-year-old employee threw herself from her office window at the company’s Paris headquarters. In 2011 a 57-year-old France Télécom worker set himself on fire in a company car park.

Lombard, who resigned in 2011, admitted the restructuring operation upset employees but he has denied it led to them taking their own lives.

In sending the case to court, the investigating judges said they were not criticising the former executives’ business choices “but the manner in which the [company] restructure was carried out”.

At a press conference last month, telecoms unions said France Télécom employees had suffered “incredible violence” during the company shakeup.

“We witnessed the establishment of a system of institutional harassment,” said Patrick Ackermann, head of the SUD union. “It came from the highest level of the company’s hierarchy and went right down to the first level of executives with a violence that led to terrible situations, including suicides.”

The company has denied the accusations. In September, Lombard’s lawyer, Jean Veil, described it as “absurd” that his client was facing trial.

If convicted, the defendants face €15,000 (£12,800) fines each and up to a year in prison.

In the UK, the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14. Hotlines in other countries can be found here