The employees at France Télécom killed themselves in the mid-2000s after management sought to reduce the work force through a policy of harassment, a court found.
PARIS — The former chief executive of one of France’s biggest companies and two subordinates were convicted on Friday of “institutional moral harassment” in the suicides of 35 employees in the mid-2000s, in a landmark ruling that represents the first time a French company has been held responsible for such a crime.
The chief executive, Didier Lombard, who led France Télécom, the former national telephone company that is now the telecommunications giant Orange, was sentenced to four months in prison and fined $16,000, as were the company’s second-in-command and its director of human resources at the time. Orange was fined the maximum $83,000.
The criminal court in Paris found that the three men were responsible for creating an atmosphere of fear during a desperate company restructuring that led directly to the suicides and attempted suicides of numerous employees.
Current and former workers gave wrenching testimony in a three-month trial this spring and summer about the severe anxiety that prevailed as the executives tackled a $50 billion debt by trying to get rid of 22,000 employees, out of a total of 120,000. Most of the employees were civil servants and thus could not be fired.
The court found on Friday that the ends in no way justified the methods. “The means chosen to reach 22,000 departures were illegitimate,” the court said in its ruling. The executives put in place “a conscious scheme to worsen the work conditions of the employees in order to speed up departures,” it said, and that the policy “created a climate of anxiety” that led to the suicides.
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