France Telecom and its former CEO stood trial on Monday accused of creating a system of workplace harassment in a brutal bid to downsize, which prosecutors say triggered a wave of 35 suicides in less than two years.

In the first such case of its case for a company this big, France Telecom, since renamed Orange, its ex-boss Didier Lombard, and six former colleagues face charges of “moral harassment” for enforcing a “corporate policy aimed at destabilising their employees and agents by creating a stressful professional climate”.

France Telecom was privatised in 2004, a move which led to major restructuring and job losses. Unions say management came up with this "system" to accelerate change at the company as it faced increasingly open competition since the state removed its controlling stake.

Two years later, with the telecoms market in full upheaval and France’s state sector workers virtually unsackable, Mr Lombard unveiled a management plan that made no bones about wanting to strong-arm 22,000 employees to leave within three years. Managers should do everything possible to push them to do so "through the window or the door", he told them.

Didier Lombard, ex-CEO of France Telecom denies fostering institutional harassment at the companyCredit:
Lionel Cironneau/AP

The aim, said prosecutors, was to demoralise staff in any way they saw fit in order to get them to throw in the towel. This could be sending them to far-flung places away from their families, obliging a mother to travel two hours to work each day, or "forgetting" staff during an office move leaving them in the former premises for weeks without an office, desk or chair and far from ex-colleagues. 

In their indictment, investigating magistrates said employees faced “multiple and disorderly organisational changes, repeated calls to to leave, forced mobility, an excess or absence of work, the attribution of demeaning missions, non-existent or insufficient training and…isolation”.

The strategy worked but unions and management now concur that in the space of a year from 2008-9, some 35 employees had taken their own life in the process.

One stabbed himself during a meeting, another left a suicide note saying he couldn’t take the strain of "management through terror”. Two months later, a 32-year-old woman killed herself in her Paris office as horrified colleagues looked on. Thousands more left the company appalled at their treatment.

When asked to explain the rash of suicides, Mr Lombard prompted widespread outrage by dismissing them as a “fad”. He later apologised for “the enormous gaffe” and stepped down in 2010.

During the nine-year investigation, magistrates focused on the cases of 39 employees, 19 of whom killed themselves, 12 who tried to commit suicide and eight who suffered from acute depression or were signed off sick as a result of it.

French unions hope the trial of France Telecom and its ex-boss serve as a trial against 'social violence as a method of management'.Credit:
CHARLES PLATIAU/Reuters

During questioning, the top executives denied any concrete targets to cut staff saying these were mere "guidelines" and they were doing what they could to save the company at a difficult time.  After buying Orange at the height of the telecoms boom in 2000, France Telecom’s €70bn (£60bn) deficit matched Russia’s Soviet-era foreign debt. Major re-structuring helped halve that figure within a decade.

But after poring over documents and interviewing witnesses, prosecutors said that managers had been "trained to demoralise their teams and their bonuses were dependent on this”.

The moral harassment was "organised at the corporate level by its executives", said investigating judges.

Mr Lombard, his number two Louis-Pierre Wenes and human resources director Olivier Barberot face a maximum year in prison and €15,000 fine. Four other executives face charges of complicity. The company faces a €75,000 fine.

The defendants deny all charges.

Raphaël Louvradoux, 56, whose father committed suicide in April 2011 by setting fire to himself outside a company site, said he regretted judges had not retained the more serious charges of “manslaughter” and “endangering the lives of others”. “Their mass plan was aimed at pushing people over the edge. They knew it could kill,” he said.

The two-month trial could see as many as 100 civil plaintiffs with many calling for it to serve as a landmark case against managerial brutality.

Sebastien Crozier, head of the CFE-CGC labour union at Orange, said the trial was about the use of "social violence as a method of management".

It comes at a time of soul-searching in France about suicides in other sectors, in particular among police and farmers.

The trial continues.

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