France Telecom suicides: Prosecutor calls for bullying trial

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France Telecom workers protest in 2009 against the spate of suicidesImage source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Officials say 19 people took their lives at France Telecom in 2008 and 2009

After a lengthy inquiry into a wave of suicides at France Telecom, the Paris prosecutor has recommended that its former chief executive and other key figures are put on trial for bullying.

At least 19 people are known to taken their lives in 2008 and 2009 as the company cut thousands of jobs.

Judicial sources say the company and ex-boss Didier Lombard are suspected of using a policy of unsettling staff to speed up job losses.

France Telecom became Orange in 2013.

It will now be up to an examining judge to decide whether or not to order a trial. But if it goes ahead it would be the first trial in France for bullying (moral harassment) of such a large company.

As well as the former CEO, other figures could also face trial including his right-hand man Louis-Pierre Wenes, human resources head Olivier Barberot and four other directors.

What went wrong at France Telecom

In 2006, Mr Lombard announced plans to cut 22,000 jobs and move another 14,000 workers, as France Telecom pushed for greater efficiency in the wake of privatisation two years earlier.

According to an internal document cited by French media, he told a high-level meeting that he would "do it one way or another, through the window or through the door".

In submissions made late last month, the Paris prosecutor accuses France Telecom of enacting a policy in 2007 that resulted in unsettling workers and creating a "professional climate that provoked anxiety" at the time of a "delicate restructuring" of the company, a judicial source told AFP news agency.

The true number of suicides involving staff is unclear, but 60 people are thought to have taken their lives over a three-year period, and unions say as many as 35 died in 2008 and 2009.

Officials speak of 19 deaths during the two years, 12 attempted suicides and eight other cases involving depression or related illnesses.

Were the job cuts to blame?

Although the suicide rate at France Telecom was similar to the national average, many of those who died left notes blaming pressure from management.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
An examining judge will decide whether Didier Lombard and others will go on trial for bullying

Mr Lombard accepted the restructuring upset employees but he has rejected the idea that it led to people taking their own lives.

France Telecom, and later Orange, has been beset by tragedy since 2007:

  • In 2009, a woman aged 32 took her own life at work in Paris
  • A woman tried to kill herself in the eastern city of Metz on learning that she was about to be transferred for the third time in a year
  • A man was found dead at home, after apparently writing a letter blaming his job
  • In 2011 a worker aged 57 tried to kill himself as he arrived at work near Bordeaux

The spate of work-related deaths was not confined to France Telecom. In 2007, car-maker Renault was investigated after three workers took their own lives.

Under French law, anyone who harasses another with repeated actions with the aim or the effect of degrading working conditions is liable to a year in jail and a fine of €15,000 ($16,500; £12,800).