French telecom executives to stand trial over wave of staff suicides

French chairman and CEO of France Telecom Group, Didier Lombard presents the group's 2008 full-year results in Paris, Wednesday, March 4, 2009. AP Photo/Christophe Ena

The former head of France Telecom Didier Lombard, six other executives and telecoms operator Orange have been ordered to stand trial over their alleged role in a wave of staff suicides.

They stand accused of engaging in or assisting psychological harassment, according to the court order, obtained by Reuters. Lombard, a former human resources head and a deputy CEO were placed under court supervision until trial.

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“As it has always said, Orange rejects the accusations and will make its case during the public hearing which will be scheduled in the coming months,” an Orange spokesman said.

Jean Veil, Lombard’s lawyer, said the move was “absurd.”

The crime of “moral harassment” can be punished with two years in prison and 30,000 euros ($35,000) in fines.

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France Telecom, which has since become Orange, was hit by a wave of employee suicides beginning in 2008 that took the lives of over 30 workers in two years, including a man who stabbed himself in the stomach during a staff meeting and a woman who threw herself out of a window.

Blamed on workplace stress, the suicides continued in 2010, taking the lives of five workers in 10 days in one particularly difficult period.

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A 2010 report by labor inspectors said management used “pathogenic” restructuring methods such as forcing people into new jobs and giving unattainable performance objectives.

Lombard, who denied any wrongdoing during an investigation of the suicides, stepped down as CEO of Orange in early 2010 amid criticism of his handling of the crisis.

“This must serve as an example so that management never again uses social violence to get people to leave,” said the head of the CFE-CGC union at Orange, Sebastien Crozier.

The restructuring plan aimed to reduce France Telecom’s headcount by 22,000 while shifting 10,000 people into new jobs and recruiting 6,000 new employees.

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All but two of the accused executives are now retired.

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A lawyer for the CFE-CGC union said that the trial was not expected before the second half of 2019.

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