The former chief executive of France Telecom and other ex-bosses went on trial on Monday, facing unprecedented charges of moral harassment that allegedly prompted 35 employees to take their own lives a decade ago.
The wave of suicides, which shocked France at the time, took place from 2008-2009 and raised questions about the workplace culture at the former state telecom giant.
The company is now known as Orange after being renamed in 2013.
Former chief executive Didier Lombard, who helmed the company from 2005 to 2010, several other bosses and also Orange itself are on trial for allegedly overseeing institutionalised harassment at the company.
The trial opened at the Paris criminal court nearly seven years after Lombard and France Telecom itself were charged with “moral harassment,” which is defined as “frequently repeated acts whose aim or effect is the degradation of working conditions”.
The hearing at the packed courthouse got underway with the registering of the defendants and civil plaintiffs who include relatives of former France Telecom staff who killed themselves.
Alongside Lombard, also in the dock on the same charge were the company’s former number two Louis-Pierre Wenes and the former head of human resources Olivier Barberot.
Four others face charges of complicity in a trial set to be closely followed by businesses, unions and workforce experts.
If convicted, they could face a year behind bars and a 15,000 euro ($16,800) fine. The trial could last up until July 12.
Orange itself could be slapped with a 75,000-euro sanction if found guilty.
‘Climate of anxiety’
Despite France’s labour laws, which are some of the strongest in the world, there have been increasing concerns about the consequences of pressure in the workplace, including depression, long-term illness, professional burnout and even suicide.
Unions and management accept that 35 France Telecom employees took their own lives between 2008 and 2009.
Lombard stepped down as a result of the deaths.
Formerly a public company, France Telecom was privatised in 2004, a move which led to major restructuring and job losses.
Prosecutors say the company and its chief executive at the time introduced a policy of unsettling employees in order to induce them to quit.
During the investigation, magistrates focused on the cases of 39 employees, 19 of whom killed themselves, 12 who tried to, and eight who suffered from acute depression or were signed off sick as a result of it.
In July 2008, a 51-year-old technician from Marseille killed himself, leaving a letter accusing the bosses of “management by terror”. Two months later, a 32-year-old woman jumped out of the window of her Paris office as horrified colleagues looked on.
Lombard, who served as chairman and chief executive from 2005 to 2010, also inflamed the situation with remarks that were condemned for being callous.
He admitted he had committed “an enormous gaffe” by speaking of a “suicide fad” at the company.
And in 2006, Lombard had told staff in now notorious comments: “I’ll get people to leave one way or another, either through the window or the door.”
He resigned in March 2010.
‘Moment of truth’
The investigating magistrates’ summary of charges, a copy of which was seen by AFP, accuses Lombard of putting in place “a corporate policy aimed at undermining the employees… by creating a professional climate which provoked anxiety”.
Hundreds of people protested outside the courthouse ahead of the trial opening, urging that justice be served for the former executives.
“My life today is ruined,” said former France Telecom employee Beatrice Pannier, 56, who joined the company in 1982 and has been on sick leave since she tried to kill herself in 2011. “The moment of truth has arrived,” she said.
Patrick Ackermann of the SUD union said he expected that the “former executives are convicted… that they express remorse and they recognise they crossed the line.”
The trial marks the first time that representatives from a blue-chip company in France’s CAC-40 stock index have gone on trial for moral harassment.
Defence lawyers declined to comment, but a source close to the case said France Telecom “does not deny the suffering of the staff but disputes that a policy was put in place to destabilise its teams”.