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French Telecom Executives On Trial Over 'Moral Harassment'


A trial underway in Paris illustrates the pain of privatization for many employees of a formerly state-run telecom company. Prosecutors have charged executives from the company with what's called moral harassment when a hostile work environment reportedly led to suicides. Jake Cigainero has details from Paris.

JAKE CIGAINERO, BYLINE: One morning in 2011, Remy Louvradoux went to his management job at the telecommunications company where he had worked for 30 years. At 7 a.m., alone in the parking lot of his office near Bordeaux, he took his life. His son Raphael told the news site L'Obs why.


RAPHAEL LOUVRADOUX: (Through interpreter) My father wrote his bosses a letter two years before he killed himself. He told them suicide was the only way out of a stressful work environment. No one responded.

CIGAINERO: Louvradoux was one of 19 employees who killed themselves between 2008 and 2011 at France Telecom, the company now called Orange. Twelve other workers attempted suicide. France Telecom had been part of the French government's Ministry of Posts and Telegraphs. But under a privatization process, the state sold off most of its shares. To be competitive and pay off debt, former CEO Didier Lombard wanted to cut 20% of the staff, about 22,000 employees. But many workers retained the protections they had enjoyed as civil servants.

PHILIPPE ASKENAZY: Yeah. So actually, when you are a servant - the status of civil servant - it's absolutely impossible to fire you when you are in a permanent contract.

CIGAINERO: That's Philippe Askenazy, a labor economist at the National Center for Scientific Research in France. He says France Telecom's transition to private ownership was particularly brutal.

AKENAZY: For them, workers are just a wage and a cost rather than a real resource for their firm. They develop practices to push workers to resign.

CIGAINERO: Prosecutors say managers and engineers were demoted to call center jobs. Employees complained they were micromanaged, isolated and assigned to jobs without training. Families were moved multiple times around the country.

AKENAZY: One of the suicides, for example, is linked to a woman who was relocated across France three times in the same year just because she didn't want to resign.

CIGAINERO: CEO Lombard reportedly told fellow executives that one way or the other he would make workers leave - through the door or through the window. His lawyer seemed to acknowledge the statement, saying his client had misspoken. When Lombard was quoted calling the suicides a "fad," the executive explained the comment as a gaffe. Now, he, six other executives and the company Orange itself are on trial. It's the first time a major firm in France has faced charges of moral harassment. Prosecutors say managers created a hostile work environment to get employees to quit. Lombard's lawyer says his client is not responsible for harassing employees he didn't know, employees like technician Robert Perrin. His brother Jean told BFM TV that constant demeaning remarks from his bosses pushed his brother to take his own life.


JEAN PERRIN: (Speaking French).

CIGAINERO: Jean Perrin wants Lombard to apologize. And he says he's asking on behalf of all the families who lost loved ones. The defendants may have to do more than apologize. They face up to a year in prison and fines of 15,000 euros. The trial will continue for two months. For NPR News, I'm Jake Cigainero in Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.