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20 December 2019 12:33

Orange S.A. Telecommunications Didier Lombard

France Telecom's ex-CEO, executives face verdict over string of suicides

French phone and Internet provider Orange was found guilty Friday of collective moral harassment for a string of employee suicides. Former Orange CEO Didier Lombard was also convicted and sentenced to four months in prison and ordered to pay 15,000 euros in fines. Lombard, now 77, admitted in court that he "made a blunder" in 2006 when he said he "wanted employees to leave by the door or by the window." He also admitted to once saying there was "a pattern of suicide in the business." Lombard left his post in 2010. A French court will rule on Friday whether the former CEO of France Telecom and other executives carried out "institutional harassment" that sparked a spate of at the company. Lombard denied that management bore any responsibility for the deaths, despite having told managers in 2006 that he would "get people to leave one way or another, either through the window or the door." "The transformations a business has to go through aren't pleasant, that's just the way it is, there's nothing I could have done," he told the court.

In July 2009, a 51-year-old technician from Marseille killed himself, leaving a letter accusing bosses of "management by terror." Lombard, who was forced to step down in 2010, a few months after the became headline news, argued that he was battling to save France Telecom from bankruptcy after its privatisation in 2004. In a letter he read to the court, Lombard also expressed his "sincere and profound sadness that this situation involuntarily contributed to the fragility of some, to the point that they carried out this irreparable act." His remarks infuriated some former employees who attended the trial. Although the defendants recognised the restructuring would be tough for employees, they denied it involved moral harassment, which the French legal code defines as "frequently repeated acts whose aim or effect is the degradation of working conditions." Claudia Chemarin, a lawyer for France Telecom, told the court it was not possible to prove any "intentional element of harassment with regard to each" of the victims. Didier Lombard, the former chief executive of France Telecom, during his trial in Paris in July 2019 over a wave of suicides at the company. A French court will rule on Friday whether the former CEO of France Telecom and other executives carried out "institutional harassment" that sparked a spate of suicides at the company.

Between 2008 to 2009, 35 employees of the former state-owned telecom giant, now called Orange, took their own lives as managers embarked on a vast restructuring plan that included cutting 22,000 jobs. Prosecutors sought a one-year prison term for former chief Didier Lombard and the maximum fine of 15,000 euros ($16,700) during a trial that wrapped up in July. France Telecom itself was charged with "institutional harassment" and faces a fine of up to 75,000 euros. Lombard's deputy and the human resources director could also face a year in prison, while four other executives were charged with complicity in harassment, with prosecutors seeking eight-month terms and 10,000 euro fines. Lombard denied that management bore any responsibility for the deaths, despite having told managers in 2006 that he would "get people to leave one way or another, either through the window or the door." The victims' families and unions accuse France Telecom of systematic psychological abuse aimed at pushing out people at its nearly 23,000 sites across the country, including forcing workers to change jobs or to relocate for work. In July 2009, a 51-year-old technician from Marseille killed himself, leaving a letter accusing bosses of "management by terror." Lombard, who was forced to step down in 2010, a few months after the suicides became headline news, argued that he was battling to save France Telecom from bankruptcy after its privatisation in 2004. In a letter he read to the court, Lombard also expressed his "sincere and profound sadness that this situation involuntarily contributed to the fragility of some, to the point that they carried out this irreparable act." Although the defendants recognised the restructuring would be tough for employees, they denied it involved moral harassment, which the French legal code defines as "frequently repeated acts whose aim or effect is the degradation of working conditions." Claudia Chemarin, a lawyer for France Telecom, told the court it was not possible to prove any "intentional element of harassment with regard to each" of the victims.