Court investigates high level of suicides

PARIS -The city prosecutor's office says it is investigating France Telecom over accusations of psychological harassment related to a recent spate of suicides.

PARIS -The city prosecutor's office says it is investigating France Telecom over accusations of psychological harassment related to a recent spate of suicides.

The preliminary inquiry before a magistrate, or investigating judge, relates to the way the company managed its restructuring, the Paris prosecutor's office said.

Senior management will be questioned, it added.

The case appears to be the first of its kind in France to examine such claims against a company and to study its system of management, said Dominique Deceze, a journalist who has written about work safety in France and France Telecom in particular.

More than 40 suicides have been reported since the start of 2008 among people who have worked for France Telecom, which employs about 100000 people in France, which has a higher suicide rate than any other large Western country, according to World Health Organisation statistics from 2005, the most recent year available. But this suicide spate still stands out.

The case has captured the attention of the French media, the public and the government because many of the suicides and more than a dozen failed suicide attempts have been attributed to work-related problems.

In response, France Telecom has halted some practices identified as being disruptive, like involuntary transfers, while encouraging more supportive practices, including working from home.

Claudia Chemarin, a lawyer for France Telecom, denied that the company had systematically pressured employees to leave. She said the investigation would take time and would examine each case individually.

The inquiry will be led by a magistrate who will have to decide whether there is enough evidence for a more formal investigation and possibly an indictment.

The judicial inquiry stems from a complaint lodged last year by the union Solidaires Unitaires Democratiques against the company's former chief executive Didier Lombard; Louis-Pierre Wenes, who was his deputy; and Olivier Barberot, director of human resources. Lombard left his position early this year but remains a nonexecutive director.

The union said last week its complaint accused the management of France Telecom and its mobile phone unit Orange of conducting a "pathogenic" restructuring.

The investigation follows a report carried out by a work inspector, Sylvie Catala, and sent to prosecutors in February.

The inspector's report is not public, but excerpts have been published in the French media, which have described it as laying out a case that the company used various forms of psychological pressure in an effort to cut 22000 jobs from 2006 to 2008.

Company doctors had alerted management about the psychological dangers of the accompanying stress.

Deceze, the expert on work safety, said there had been a "peculiarity" about the transformation of France Telecom, which was "especially brutal" - as its employee numbers in France dropped by more than 50000 in 10 years.

The spate of suicides has highlighted a quirk at the heart of French society: Even with labour protection, workers see themselves as profoundly insecure in the face of globalisation, with many complaining about being pushed beyond their limits.

High labour costs borne by employers create a reluctance to hire because tough job security rules make it harder to get rid of workers later if business turns down.

Since those on the payroll cannot be easily laid off, companies must somehow make a place for them, even if their skills are no longer in demand. At the same time, companies increasingly rely on short-term employment contracts, which put different strains on employees.

More broadly, stress has risen at several French companies including the rail operator and the carmaker Renault.

Deceze forecast a surge in work-related problems where union complaints about deteriorating conditions have met with little response from management, leading to several strikes. - Matthew Saltmarsh