PARIS, July 4 France Telecom's former chief executive was put under investigation on Wednesday over his alleged role in a wave of staff suicides, accused of advocating tough management practices amounting to psychological harassment, his lawyer said.
Didier Lombard was head of the telecommunications company when it was engulfed in controversy linked to the suicides of more than 30 employees in 2008 and 2009, a decade after its privatisation.
Lombard, who stepped down as CEO in early 2010 amid criticism of his handling of the crisis, was released under court surveillance on bail of 100,000 euros ($125,000) after being questioned for four hours by two investigating magistrates.
"I forcefully reject the idea that (restructuring) plans vital to the survival of the company might have been the cause of human tragedies," the former CEO wrote in Le Monde daily on Wednesday, proclaiming his innocence.
Lombard's lawyer, Jean Veil, said his client had not been given a chance to explain himself fully but sought to clarify the context of his actions by referring to tough economic conditions and pressure exerted by the government, a minority stakeholder.
Unions said harsh practices including forced moves and impossible performance targets were partly behind the rash of suicides. France Telecom had countered by saying the rate was no higher than in the general population.
Yet the former CEO, who was succeeded by Stephane Richard, said after stepping down that he regretted not taking measures earlier than he had to boost staff morale at the company of more than 100,000 employees.
In February 2010, government labour inspectors wrote in a report on the suicides that France Telecom had ignored warnings from doctors about the mental health of certain employees.
The report, seen by Reuters, pointed to a restructuring plan that sought to reduce headcount by 22,000 and put 10,000 other workers in new positions as having a "pathological effect" on staff morale.
"In this case, Mr Didier Lombard is being accused of harassment against people that he never met," Veil said. "That is a stunning accusation."
If found guilty of harassment, Lombard could face up to one year in prison and a 15,000-euro fine.
Two other former senior executives at France Telecom have been summoned by investigating magistrates.
($1 = 0.7994 euros) (Reporting by Thierry Leveque; Writing by Nicholas Vinocur; Editing by Dale Hudson)