Telecom bosses on trial for driving workers to suicide

By Brian Williams
July 29, 2019

A highly publicized two-month trial over charges top bosses at France’s former government telephone monopoly relentlessly drove dozens of workers to suicide by “moral harassment” in their push to cut the workforce and boost profits was closely followed by working people. Testimony at the trial, including vivid descriptions of how the bosses treated workers as trash in an all-out effort to get them to quit, shines a spotlight on the brutal workings of the capitalist system. The trial proceedings concluded July 12 and a verdict isn’t expected for weeks. 

France Telecom, now called Orange, was privatized in 2003. Facing stiffening competition amid a shift to digital technology, the company set out to get rid of 22,000 of its 130,000 workers. 

But the bosses had to confront the fact that workers in France waged labor battles earlier that won legal protections against being arbitrarily fired or laid off. State workers consider themselves to have jobs for life. 

President Emmanuel Macron — dubbed the “president of the rich” by massive yellow vest protests earlier this year — and the capitalist rulers in France have moved to overhaul the country’s Labor Code, replacing jobs that “last a lifetime” with increasing numbers of temporary workers at lower pay, no benefits and no union protection.  

The former Telecom executives on trial included CEO Didier Lombard; second-in-command Louis-Pierre Wenes; and Olivier Barberot, head of human resources. If convicted they would each face a year in jail and a $16,800 fine. 

At the trial the prosecution played a tape of Lombard saying they would slash jobs “one way or another, by the window or by the door.” Unionists came to the trial wearing T-shirts reading, “The window or the door.” 

Chiming in along the same lines, Barberot said, “This isn’t going to be lacework here. We’re going to put people in front of life’s realities.” And that’s what the bosses did. 

“From the capitalist point of view, they were doing what they had to,” Pierre Khalfa, who worked 20 years as a line installer for France Telecom and is now retired, told the Militant. “When Didier became president, company policy changed to getting rid of people by any means.” 

The bosses ordered managers to harass targeted workers and put them in uncomfortable and unlivable conditions until they couldn’t take it anymore.

Bosses abruptly eliminated some workers’ jobs, sending others into new assignments — like a line technician ordered to do sales work — with no training. Others were forced to relocate, some numerous times, far from their families. 

Between 2008 and 2009 at least 35 workers took their own lives. Their cases were presented in court — they had hung themselves, immolated themselves, or threw themselves out of windows, under trains, off bridges and highway overpasses. Many left notes saying the company had made their lives unbearable. 

Remy Louvradoux, a 57-year-old worker at Telecom, was told in 2006 that his job was scrapped and he had to relocate. Louvradoux changed jobs four times in three years. In 2009 he wrote a note to the bosses — “Nothing is being done to face up to it: suicide remains the only solution.”  

The youngest worker to kill himself was Nicolas Grenouville, 28, who hung himself in a garage. “I can’t stand this job anymore, and France Telecom couldn’t care less,” he wrote shortly before his death in August 2009. “All they care about is money.” 

Derek Jeffers in Paris contributed to this article.