GettyImages-France Telecom trial
Former France Telecom CEO Didier Lombard arrives at Paris' courthouse on May 6, 2019 on the first day of trial of several former members of the telecoms giant's management for "moral harassment", a decade after a wave of suicides occurred at France Telecom between 2008 and 2009. LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP/Getty Images

The trial of French telecom giant Orange and seven of its former senior executives started in Paris on Monday on charges of moral harassment, intimidation, and abetment of employee suicides.

The allegations date back to 2007-10 when then France Telecom enforced job cuts and modernization following privatization. France Telecom was a government-owned monopoly that later got rebranded as Orange after privatization.

The wave of employee suicides

The turmoil in the privatized company led to a wave of 19 suicides, 12 suicide attempts and eight cases of chronic depression.

The defendants in the case include former president Didier Lombard, former human resources director Olivier Barberot and former deputy executive director Louis-Pierre Wenes. Four more officials have been listed as suspects for complicity in moral harassment.

A complaint from the Sud union put the former chairman Didier Lombard on the dock. He had casually dismissed staff suicides as “the fashion.”

Lombard began a restructuring drive to slash 22,000 jobs in a company where most employees were deemed civil servants and had immunity to layoffs.

The president defended himself in media that deaths and staff depression had nothing to do with job cuts. But he had to resign in 2010.

Mental torture by senior officials

Moral harassment is punishable in France and the minimum sentence is one year in prison and a fine of 15,000 euros ($16,790).

Since the company itself is on trial, Orange may be ordered to pay additional damages to each civil party in the case.

The company may also face hefty sanctions The prosecution has documented some significant cases against the defendants.

Labor inspectors had reported that the management indulged in “pathogenic” methods like forcing people into new jobs, thrusting unattainable performance objectives to unsettle them in a bid to force them out.

“I'll get them out one way or another, through the window or through the door,” Lombard reportedly told a senior manager in 2007.

The indictment alleges the company imposed “excessive and intrusive control” on employees, pushed workers into demoralizing tasks denied training, used “intimidation, threats and pay cuts.”

Lombard’s lawyer Jean Veil pleaded innocence on behalf of his client stating he was not aware of “what was going on in France Telecom’s vast network of more than 100,000 employees.”

Revealing suicide note of an employee

A suicide note left by Michel, 50, dated July 29, 2009, cited in the prosecutor’s report reflected the panic and agony faced by employees.

“There is a permanent sense of urgency, overwork, absence of training, the total disorganization of the company” plus “management by terror. I’m taking my life because of my work at France Telecom. It’s the only reason,” the note said.