French telecom company, former CEO face trial over wave of suicides

French telecom company Orange and its former chief executive have gone on trial in Paris, accused of pursuing a strategy to destabilize employees that resulted in a wave of suicides a decade ago.

The trial of the company and former CEO Didier Lombard, began Monday in Paris. Five other former executives, and one who still works for the company, are also being tried in the same case.

Some of the executives are accused of “psychological harassment,” while others face charges of “complicity,” according to a spokesperson for the prosecutors.

Prosecutors allege there was a “corporate strategy” to create an “anxiety-inducing work environment” that destabilized employees and undermined their dignity, according to the spokesperson.

The labor union that represents Orange workers said that 19 workers committed suicide between 2007 and 2010. Another 12 employees attempted suicide during the time period.

Prosecutors opened an investigation into the suicides at Orange, which was formerly known as France Telecom, in 2009.

The trial is scheduled to last around two months and individuals found guilty could face jail time and fines. Only one of the executives on trial is still employed by the company.

The suicides coincided with a major restructuring of the telecom company that followed a privatization and a government bailout. Directed by Lombard, the overhaul aimed to reduce its workforce by 22,000 over three years.

The union has accused management of using “particularly violent methods of institutionalized harassment” to intimidate employees into leaving.

Orange has previously denied accusations of harassment and said it would defend itself in court.

A company spokesman told CNN Business on Tuesday: “This trial is the culmination of a long judicial process following the social crisis that the group went through in 2009 and 2010, and that was certainly the most difficult moment in [our] history.”

Lawyers for Lombard were not available to comment. The former CEO previously denied the suicides were connected to working conditions at Orange and said he’s done nothing wrong, according to media reports.

Orange is the first company of its size to face trial for psychological harassment in France. Its shares were trading slightly lower in Paris as the trial got underway.