French telecom company Orange convicted over employee suicides

French phone and internet provider Orange has been found guilty over a string of employee suicides and its former chief executive was sentenced to prison, in a landmark ruling against a major European telecommunications player.

Orange was fined 75,000 euros (£64,000) and ordered to pay hundreds of thousands euros more in damages over suicides in the 2000s while the company was undergoing difficult restructuring. The exact total of the damages is pending.

Orange, which was called France Telecom at the time, is France’s first big company to be tried on a charge of institutionalised “collective moral harassment”, so the ruling could open up the possibility for other companies to face similar legal challenges.

France is one of only a handful of countries in the world able to prosecute companies or employees for such abuses.

Didier Lombard
Didier Lombard

The company’s ex-CEO Didier Lombard was convicted and sentenced to four months in prison and ordered to pay 15,000 euros (£12,000) in fines. His lawyer announced plans to appeal. Other managers were also sentenced to short prison terms and thousands of euros in fines.

They denied responsibility for suicides of people they did not know, but the court ruled they and the company were guilty of collective moral harassment, saying in its ruling: “The methods used to reach 22,000 job cuts were illegal.”

Orange’s lawyers said the job cuts were a necessary part of privatisation of state-run France Telecom.

France’s dominant telephone company has operations in 26 countries around Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Its share price did not see significant change after the ruling.

Lombard, his former right-hand man Louis-Pierre Wenes and the director of human resources Olivier Barberot were convicted for leading a “policy of destabilisation” as they sought to shed thousands of jobs. Four other managers were convicted of complicity.

Scores of employees killed themselves amid the restructuring. The trial focused on 39 cases between 2006 and 2009 – 19 suicides, 12 suicide attempts and eight cases of serious depression.

Other employee suicides could not be linked directly and solely with their work.

For two and a half months, the court listened to the families of the victims and projected letters and photos on a giant screen. One read: “I am committing suicide because of my work at France Telecom, it’s the only cause.”

On the last day of the trial in July, Wenes said he was “deeply sorry” to “those for whom work was a source of discomfort and suffering. I never wanted that”.

Lombard, 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 fashion for suicide in the business”. He left his post in 2010.