Suicide as Corporate Murder: France Télécom on Trial

On June 27, a jury at a criminal court in Paris, France, heard testimony from Noémie Louvradoux, the daughter of Rémy Louvradoux, a 56-year-old management controller and father of four. Noémie’s father killed himself by self-immolation outside the office block where he worked in the Mérignac suburb near Bordeaux, France, on the morning of April 26, 2011.

Noémie Louvradoux’s testimony is part of the last of 39 cases that have been presented to the court in the ongoing criminal trial against France Télécom, now known as Orange S.A., a French multinational telecommunications corporation. In recent weeks, the court has heard searing details of the working lives that were made unbearable and ultimately unliveable as a result of the company’s official policies.

There were 60 employee suicides at France Télécom between 2006 and 2010, according to the trade unions. Nineteen of these cases have been brought before the criminal court, along with 12 attempted suicides and eight cases of employees with severe depression or other related illnesses.

Rémy Louvradoux’s life had been rendered dysfunctional by France Télécom’s restructuring plan, which had set a goal of cutting 22,000 jobs over three years by pressuring employees to leave the company.

Former CEO Didier Lombard and six other executives are accused not of targeting employees individually, but of implementing tactics across the whole company based on what prosecutors are calling psychological bullying. Some employees were forced to change jobs or move to new cities on an almost continuous basis. Many highly skilled engineers and technicians were demoted to jobs working on the phones in call-centers. Others received a barrage of emails from their managers suggesting that they leave the company to open a pizzeria or a rural guest house. Others still were intimidated, belittled or verbally abused. Many employees report that they were “forgotten” and left behind in an empty office when staff had moved on to a new site.

In her testimony, Noémie Louvradoux suggested that her father’s death was not a voluntary or self-inflicted act, but rather a form of corporate murder perpetrated by bosses in the interests of strategic goals: “They murdered my father and my family life. They robbed us of our lives…. My father’s death was the fulfilment of their objective.”

Work Suicides on the Rise

Tragically, the France Télécom case is far from unique. Studies carried out in the United States, Japan, Australia, China and India point to a sharp rise in suicides by employees in the face of extreme and often unbearable pressures at work. In the United States, workplace suicides decreased between 2003 and 2007, but then rose sharply in the following years.

In Japan, karo-jisatsu, or suicide by being overworked, is treated as an urgent public health issue and, under a 2014 law, the government is obligated take measures to prevent it from taking place. In the U.K., a 2017 national survey found that suicides were disproportionately high for men in the construction sector, and for women in nursing and primary school teaching.

Further, Newsweek reported earlier this year on a “suicide wave” at U.S. Amazon warehouses where at least 189 instances of suicide attempts, suicidal thoughts and mental health episodes were recorded between October 2013 and October 2018.

In describing working conditions in the factories of Manchester and other English cities in the 1840s, Marxist philosopher Friedrich Engels referred to a form of “social murder” that cut short the lives of the working poor through the effects of poverty, physical hardship, injury and poor living conditions.

In his work, The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845), he observed that this social murder was different to an act of manslaughter or murder committed by an individual against another in that its causes were systemic and embedded within the logic of industrial capitalism itself:

I have now to prove that society in England daily and hourly commits what the working men’s organs, with perfect correctness, characterize as social murder, that it has placed the workers under conditions in which they can neither retain health nor live long; that it undermines the vital force of these workers gradually, little by little, and so hurries them to the grave before time.

The France Télécom suicides are far removed from the conditions of social murder that characterized working conditions in the industrial factories of the Victorian era. Suicides in France’s multinational companies are concentrated among professional elites, highly educated employees with secure and desirable jobs. If the suicides have little to do with formal and material conditions of work, their causes are nonetheless systemic and rooted within the logic of capitalism.

Waste Disposal

The suicides at France Télécom are linked to a shift to a finance-driven model that radically transformed the perceived status and value of the individual employee within the company. From being a productive asset, a skilled professional and a source of economic profit, the employee suddenly became a financial burden that needed to be removed from the company at all costs.

When France Télécom privatized in the late 1990s and transformed itself from a state-owned public service entity to a shareholder company whose profits were determined by international financial markets, its 102,254 employees were increasingly regarded by bosses as a surplus cost whose salaried existence within the company had become unacceptable.

For the late Polish sociologist and philosopher Zygmunt Bauman, today’s globalized and finance-driven economy is driven by a logic of waste disposal that consigns people and things to the rubbish bin: “The survival of that society and the well-being of its members hang on the swiftness with which products are consigned to waste and the speed and efficiency of waste removal.”

In such an order, the vitality and productivity of the whole is dependent on classifying, segregating and excluding those who are deemed to be excess. At France Télécom, suicides were not an aberration of an otherwise smooth-functioning system, but the deliberate outcome of strategies designed to push workers out by whatever means possible.

In a statement leaked to the press, former CEO Lombard made clear at a board meeting his intention to cut jobs by whatever means necessary: “I’ll get them out one way or another, through the door or the window.” At stake in the ongoing criminal trial is the use of expulsionary tactics designed to eject workers by targeting their emotional and mental vulnerabilities.

Rémy Louvradoux had written to his managers several times to inform them of his personal difficulties, but also to criticize the effects of chaotic restructuring on the workforce as a whole.

In an open letter addressed to management and to the French government (the company’s main shareholder) and written two years before his suicide, Louvradoux criticized a restructuring strategy that consigned public service employees in their 50s, like himself, to the waste bin, writing, “I’m part of this category. I am surplus…. Suicide has become the solution.”

After two months of hearings, lawyers will now summarize the case for the defense, and the trial will conclude on July 11. Each of the seven executives refute the claims made against them and maintain their innocence.