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Ex-France Telecom CEO probed over staff suicide spate

Supremo quizzed in court after union cried foul

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Former France Telecom chief executive Didier Lombard is under investigation following a spate of staff suicides at his firm in 2008 and 2009.

Lombard was in charge of the company when more than 30 employees took their lives and others attempted to kill themselves amid mass redundancies at the telco.

A court in Paris, which is conducting the probe, will decide whether or not to bring charges of harassment against the firm's management or even the company itself.

The case was opened after trade union SUD-PTT filed a formal complaint. The union said yesterday that it welcomed the court's decision to investigate Lombard.

"A trial must take place and we hope it will unveil the responsibilities and dismantle the mechanisms that led to this crisis of suicides at France Telecom," SUD-PTT said in a canned statement.

Lombard, who stepped down as CEO early in 2010 because of the crisis, was questioned in the court on Wednesday. On the same day, he defended himself in an article in French newspaper Le Monde.

"I strongly doubt that these plans, which were essential to the survival of the company, may have been the cause of the human tragedies cited in support of complaints," he wrote.

"Giving up these plans would certainly have had painful consequences for the group and for the employment of its employees," he added.

Lombard was referring to the massive upheaval at the firm that saw headcount reduced by 22,000 while 10,000 more were moved into new positions. The restructure came 10 years after the privatisation of the company.

Unions claimed that the forced moves and impossible performance targets imposed on people who used to be civil servants – many of whom had "protected employment" status, presumably making it difficult to fire them – were partly to blame for the suicides. But France Telecom said at the time that the proportion of suicides in its workforce was the same as the overall rate in France.

Lombard was released on bail of €100,000 ($125,000, £80,307), Reuters reported. If he is charged and found guilty of harassment, he could face up to one year in prison as well as a €15,000 ($18,766, £12,046) fine. ®

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