European Trade Union Institute, ETUI.

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18 July 2019

France Télécom: institutional harassment before a court

A landmark trial ended on 11 July 2019 at the Paris Tribunal de Grande Instance. It was triggered by a complaint filed with the Paris public prosecutor by the union SUD PTT in December 2009, accusing France Télécom and its senior executives of "moral harassment" and "endangering others".

Nearly ten years later, no less than seven defendants (ex-CEO Didier Lombard, his deputy Louis Pierre Wenes, the director of HR Olivier Barberot  and four other executives in office at that time and charged with complicity) as well as the telecom company Orange (formerly France Télécom) appeared before court to give evidence on the human drama caused by the brutal restructuring between 2006 and 2010 of France Télécom, a company seen as a paragon among French companies. Facing these former executives are 39 victims or their survivors and 120 civil parties seeking justice.

In the mid-2000s, France Télécom was in difficulties. To return this formerly state-run company to profitability, CEO Didier Lombard decided to launch two programmes aimed at saving the company: "Next" with its targets of getting 22 000 employees to leave the company and relocating a further 10 000 over the next three years, and "Act", its social counterpart which was supposed to provide support to those affected. In practice, the policy used to ensure this downsizing of staff was particularly brutal and destabilising. Managers were trained in "the art of war" to get rid of surplus staff, applying tactics aimed at humiliating employees or shunting them around from one location or position to another. This was accompanied by a share option scheme rewarding the most zealous managers. Extremely cynical practices using cruel methods were implemented, ignoring the many warnings issued by both occupational health doctors and members of the company's health & safety committee. The disastrous result: a spate of suicides among France Télécom staff. The accounts provided by the victims and their relatives heard in the court over a period of two-and-a-half months bear witness to the violence and suffering endured and the despair caused. Followed closely by ETUI and the French media, one of the results of the trial has been to position psychosocial risks in the general context of management methods and work organisation.

The Public Prosecutor has called for the three main defendants (Didier Lombard, Louis-Pierre Wenes and Olivier Barberot) to receive maximum punishments. After 46 hearings, the judges have retired to consider their verdict, expected to be handed down on 20 December 2019.

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Photo credit : Sadak Souici

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