Former executives at France Télécom could face prison over organised workplace harassment that led to a spate of staff suicides a decade ago, as a two-month trial that shocked France draws to a close this week.
French state prosecutors have urged judges to find the executives guilty of moral harassment and hand down the maximum prison sentence of one year, plus large fines, after details emerged in court of the turmoil felt by workers over systematic bullying tactics aimed at pushing staff to leave.
The case against the former state-owned French telecoms firm – known since 2013 as Orange – could set a world precedent with company managers held personally criminally responsible for strategic harassment aimed at forcing workers to resign.
Between 2008 and 2009, 35 employees took their own lives. The company had been privatised and was undertaking a restructuring plan during which bosses set out to cut more than a fifth of the workforce – more than 22,000 jobs.
Many of the workers who killed themselves left notes saying the company had made their lives unbearable.
Seven former France Télécom bosses, including the former CEO Didier Lombard and the former head of human resources Olivier Barberot, are accused of putting in place a toxic management system of institutional harassment designed to force workers out. Some staff were routinely forced to change job or relocate for work, finding their positions had been scrapped.
The accused deny the charges.
The court heard accounts from the families of several workers who had taken their own lives. Noémie Louvradoux told how her father, Rémy Louvradoux, a 57-year-old public sector worker at France Télécom, killed himself days before her 18th birthday.
“We loved my father. You killed him. And all for what?” she said in court, addressing the former executives. “France Télécom had destroyed his life and left him no way out.”
Louvradoux’s case was said by lawyers to sum up the toxic working environment. He had worked his way up in the company from a low position to a more senior local role, but in 2006 his job was scrapped and he was made to relocate and change jobs four times in three years, while trying to work as hard as possible to avoid more change. He had written to company bosses in 2009 complaining of an endemic problem and saying: “Nothing is being done to face it up to it: suicide remains the only solution.”
Lombard, the CEO, told the court he never received the letter, which is most likely to have ended up with the human resources department.
After state prosecutors recommended maximum penalties, including a €75,000 (£67,000) fine to be paid by the company, Louvradoux’s son said outside court: “Fear has to change sides. These people have to stop feeling impunity, so that they never do this again and so that others never do it again in other companies because they know they’ll risk prison.”
Another worker, Daniel Doublet, described how management stopped giving him work to do. He lived in the Paris area but was relocated to Besançon, 280 miles (450km) from his family, and his tasks were never defined. “Imagine the isolation I felt,” he said. “It was as if I was nothing … a parasite.”
The widow of Michel Bugead, another worker who took his life, said he had written by email to management to express concerns. She said he, like many others, “was very attached to the company which had allowed him to rise up the ladder in society.”
Lombard denied telling a meeting of managers in 2006 that he would “get people to leave one way or another, either through the window or the door.” In court, where trade unionists in the gallery wore T-shirts printed with the words “the window or the door”, he denied that management bore any responsibility.
“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.
At one point, when describing how he travelled to a site to tell workers it would not be closed, the judge asked him: “Are you crying, Mr Lombard?” He said that because he was seen as a big executive, “people think I don’t have a heart. That’s not true.”
The case is a first for a blue-chip company listed on France’s CAC 40 stock index and the first time managers could be held criminally responsible for implementing a strategy of bullying even if they had not dealt directly with the staff affected.
The state prosecutor Françoise Benezech told the court: “There is no question that in designing a restructuring process with huge job cuts and transfers … the managers knew they were destabilising the workers.”
The trial ends on Thursday and judges are expected to take several weeks to return their verdict.