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French government steps in over France Telecom suicides

The French government on Monday pressed France Telecom to tackle a wave of suicides that union leaders blame on stressful management tactics.

world Updated: Sep 14, 2009 16:54 IST

The French government on Monday pressed France Telecom to tackle a wave of suicides that union leaders blame on stressful management tactics.

Labour Minister Xavier Darcos called for a meeting on Tuesday with France Telecom chief executive Didier Lombard after a woman threw herself from an office window after learning that her boss would change -- becoming the 23rd death in 19 months at the former state-owned company.

On Friday, a 32-year-old woman killed herself by jumping from the fifth-floor window of a France Telecom building in Paris. Two days before that another employee stabbed himself in the stomach during a meeting.

France Telecom employs 100,000 people in France and 23 staff have killed themselves since February 2008.

"It is the duty and obligation of the company and of the government, which is a powerful shareholder, to examine this issue," President Nicolas Sarkozy's chief of staff Claude Gueant told RTL radio.

Sarkozy's top aide noted that in many cases, the employees were grappling with personal demons and that France Telecom was not fully to blame for the deaths.

"Suicide is a very serious, very personal affair and we cannot reduce this phenomenon at France Telecom to an organisational problem at the company," added Gueant.

But the government pushed France Telecom's leadership to take action, although officials have said over the past weeks that they had stepped up training for managers to help them detect potential suicide cases.

Budget minister Eric Woerth said at the weekend that France Telecom's management "must take very, very seriously this incredible string of suicides in one company."

Economy Minister Christine Lagarde on Sunday told France Telecom's CEO to convene a special board meeting so that a message is sent "from the highest level" to the staff.

Union leaders blame management's failure to help staff cope with stress from a massive restructuring plan at France Telecom, which is trying to become more competitive.

The head of the CFDT union Francois Chereque demanded that France Telecom put a freeze on the restructuring.

"This is a company which has a single goal of making money and inevitably, the employees at France Telecom, who were used to another work relationship with customers, are asked to turn a profit," said Chereque.

"These are not personal tragedies. We know that suicide stems from some personal problems but to commit this act at the workplace is a cry for help tied to the place where the action is taken," he added.

The suicide rate in France in 2006 was 16 deaths per 100,000, according to the INSERM national health research agency.