French trial accusing Orange of moral harassment wraps

PARIS (AP) — A trial in which French mobile phone company Orange, its former CEO Didier Lombard and others have been accused of moral harassment linked to a spate of suicides between 2006 and 2009, ended Thursday.

The company, formerly France Telecom, is accused of using methods to "destabilize" workers to get rid of 22,000 staff as part of a cost-cutting drive, after the company was largely privatized in 2004.

Given that it's famously hard to fire staff using French law, prosecutors alleged that the company used an array of methods to get people out such as demoting staff or moving them against their will to new site locations.

Over the four-year period under deliberation, the company recorded some 19 suicides, 12 suicide attempts and eight cases of serious depression among staff.

Victims' letters and photos were displayed on the giant screen of the Paris courtroom, including one that read: "I am committing suicide because of my work at France Telecom. That's the only cause."

The prosecution wants the maximum penalty — one year in prison for Lombard, and two others, who deny all allegations. The company could be fined up to 75,000 euros ($84,000). Four other employees, accused of complicity, face a maximum 8 month prison sentence and a 10,000 euros ($11,000) fine. The surviving victims and families of the deceased also sought two million euros ($2.2 million) in damages.

The verdict will be announced Dec. 20.

France is one of only a handful of countries in the world able to prosecute companies or employees for having "caused a systemic anxiety-provoking work climate."

It's the first time a 2002 moral harassment law has been used against a major company, and the prosecution said a "historic" conviction could open up the possibility for companies to face similar legal challenges.

Orange's lawyers asked the court "not to make France Telecom" this "symbol."

Lombard, 77, who left his post in 2010, denied responsibility in the suicides — yet, Lombard acknowledged to the court that he said, in 2006, he wanted to "send employees out the door or window." He called it a gaffe. He also acknowledged saying that, in 2009, the company had "a fashion for suicide."

Lombard's lawyer Francois Esclatine said while his client was perhaps a flawed individual, it should not be forgotten that he rescued one of France's most famous companies during one of its rockiest moments.

"Maybe Mr. Lombard is clumsy, blundering — but he saved this business. If Orange is what it is today, it is thanks to Lombard," Esclatine said.

His lawyers argued that any "malaise" at work was due to the restructuring, not Lombard.

After privatization, the company's new managers wanted to reduce staff numbers by 22,000 between 2006 and 2008, and open up 6,000 jobs for external candidates.

However, given that France has famously strict rules to protect staff from dismissal, it was apparent that France Telecom was not going to be able to fire such a large number of protected status employees.

A lawyer for one of the main unions, Sud, Sylvie Topaloff said their wish for employees to leave on a voluntary basis failed.

"You operated a harmful company policy (where employees were) downgraded, humiliated, displaced," Topaloff said to the court.

The prosecution accused Orange of "degrading the working conditions of staff, undermining their rights and dignity, impairing their physical or mental health" and "jeopardizing their professional future."

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Thomas Adamson in Paris contributed