Three former executives of a French telecommunications giant were found guilty on Friday of creating a corporate culture so toxic that 35 of their employees were driven to suicide in the mid-2000s. The charge in the historic case: "harcèlement moral institutionnel," or "institutional moral harassment."
The ruling from a Paris criminal court caps a months-long trial and years-long saga that has spurred protests and highlighted issues of labour relations and workplace conditions in a country with a sometimes contentious relationship to capitalism.
The company, France Télécom - which used to be state-owned and is now known as Orange, one of France's largest corporations - was fined $83,000, the maximum penalty. Its ex-chief executive, Didier Lombard, was sentenced to four months in prison and fined $16,000, along with his former second-in-command and head of human resources.
It is the first time a French company of Orange's size has been held to account for this type of workplace bullying.
CFE-CGC Orange, a trade union that represents the company's workers, has been tracking employee suicides since 2007, and its leaders said they welcomed Friday's decision.
"Our thoughts are with the victims and the families of the victims of managerial violence put in place by Didier Lombard and his henchmen," Sébastien Crozier, the shop's president, said in a statement. "We hope that this judgment will serve as an example so that this type of situation never happens again."
Lombard and the two other former executives, the deputy Louis-Pierre Wenès and the HR director Olivier Barberot, plan to appeal the ruling, reported the news station France 24. Orange will not.
The spate of suicides, which happened more than a decade ago, came as the company underwent a massive restructuring effort. Then France's national telephone company, France Télécom embarked on an aggressive plan to cut 22,000 workers and shift another 10,000 into new jobs - all between 2006 and 2008. Most of the employees, because they were civil servants, could not be fired.
So, prosecutors said, the company's executives tried to make workers' lives so miserable they would leave voluntarily. Lombard, speaking to senior managers in 2007, reportedly vowed, "I'll get them out one way or another, through the window or through the door."
In the ruling, the court said "the means chosen to reach 22,000 departures were illegitimate," the New York Times reported. It was "a conscious scheme to worsen the work conditions of the employees in order to speed up departures" and it "created a climate of anxiety" that led to the suicides.
The employee deaths were often shocking and violent. One man leaped to his death from a highway bridge in the French Alps. Another set himself on fire in the parking lot of the company's office near Bordeaux. At an office in Paris, a woman threw herself from a sixth-floor window.
In many cases, suicide notes blaming the company accompanied them. In court, the Associated Press reported, one was projected on a large screen, reading: "I am committing suicide because of my work at France Télécom, it's the only cause."
For years, however, the company downplayed the suicides, calling them not statistically surprising for a workforce so large.
But during the trial, as victims' family members and co-workers testified, the executives displayed more contrition.
Wenès said he was "deeply sorry" to "those for whom work was a source of discomfort and suffering, I never wanted that," according to the AP.
The ruling was announced as France grappled with more, but unrelated, labor turmoil. Friday marked day 16 of crippling strikes in response to President Emmanuel Macron's plans to overhaul the retirement system. Transport unions led the protests and have been joined by air traffic controllers, teachers and health workers, grinding daily activities in the capital to a halt.
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