A wave of employees at a French telecom giant died by suicide years ago. Now company officials are facing criminal charges.

/ CBS/AP

The toll is shocking: 19 suicides, 12 suicide attempts and eight reported cases of serious depression among employees at France's main telephone and internet company over three years. In a long-awaited trial in Paris, the former president of France Telecom defended himself Tuesday against accusations of moral harassment.

Once a state-owned monopoly, France Telecom transformed in the 2000s into a private company, now known as Orange. The company's president at the time, Didier Lombard, launched a restructuring plan aimed at shedding 22,000 jobs, but most employees were still considered civil servants and so were protected from layoffs.

As it sought to reduce staff, an indictment says the company imposed "excessive and intrusive control" on employees, assigned workers to demoralizing tasks, failed to provide training, isolated staff and used "intimidation maneuvers or threats and pay cuts." In 2006, according to AFP, Lombard allegedly told staff: "I'll get people to leave one way or another, either through the window or the door."

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An investigation into the wave of employee suicides between 2007 and 2010 was opened following a complaint from the Sud union. At the time, Lombard allegedly referred to the deaths as "the fashion."

France Telecom Chief Executive Didier Lombard in 2008 Josep Lago/AFP/Getty Images

Lombard, who was replaced as France Telecom chief in 2010, has denied all the charges. "The transformations a business has to go through aren't pleasant, that's just the way it is, there's nothing I could have done," he said in court Tuesday, according to AFP.

"If I hadn't been there, it would have been the same, if not worse," he said, the news agency reported. "The problem was that we had to get our house in order."

He also said newspapers "wrecked morale" by saying the company was in a "terrible state," according to AFP. However, in a letter he read to the court, Lombard expressed his "sincere and profound sadness that this situation involuntarily contributed to the fragility of some, to the point that they carried out this irreparable act."

Lombard has attributed the suicides, attempted suicides and cases of depression to "local difficulties with no links to each other" and no relation to the company's job cuts at the time. The indictment lists the employees who took their lives or tried to, some on the job.

Michel, 50, left a note about his decision to end his life on July 29, 2009, according to the prosecutor's report. Michel's note denounced "the permanent sense of urgency, overwork, absence of training, the total disorganization of the company" plus "management by terror."

"I'm taking my life because of my work at France Telecom. It's the only reason," the note said.

A month earlier, Christel, 37, slashed her veins in an apparent bid to kill herself in front of two superiors who told her hours earlier she would be transferred. In March 2009, 52-year-old Herve was preparing to jump from an office window but the noise he was making drew others to his rescue.

Jean-Michel, a father of three children, was 53 when he threw himself in front of a train on July 2, 2008, while on the phone with two union delegates. The defendants also include former human resources director Olivier Barberot and former deputy executive director Louis-Pierre Wenes.

The trial is the largest to date in France for moral harassment on a company-wide scale. The defendants are suspected of having "degraded work conditions of personnel that risked hurting their rights and dignity, altering the physical or mental health (of personnel), or compromising their professional future."

Four other officials are suspected of complicity in moral harassment. In France, moral harassment can be punished by a year in prison and a fine of 15,000 euros ($16,790).

Orange itself is also on trial, and the court could order the company to grant additional damages to each civil party in the case. The case initially involved 39 employees with mental health problems, including the almost half who killed themselves.

Another 126 people asked Monday to join the case, saying they also were damaged by what they call a culture of unsustainable pressure as Orange was undergoing job cuts and restructuring. Unions said France's big companies haven't learned any lessons from what happened at France Telecom, and about 200 activists demonstrated outside the courthouse Monday to urge a conviction.

Presiding Judge Cecile Louis-Loyant said the court "wants to understand why some employees killed themselves, and why others tried to do so." She noted that prosecutors believe "the repetition of cases was enough to characterize moral harassment, but does not accuse the defendants of causing the suicides. (The prosecution) holds that the method of personnel management affected various employees with an increase of psychological-social risk."

The judges agreed to include the complaints of the 126 employees who asked to join the case in the case file. Lombard's lawyer, Jean Veil, said his client is innocent because he could not possibly know what was going on in France Telecom's vast network of more than 100,000 employees.

"Mr. Didier Lombard is suspected of harassment of people he never saw," Veil has said. "Now there's a surprising accusation."

First published on May 7, 2019 / 5:47 PM

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

France Telecom Chief Executive Didier Lombard takes part in a Commission for the Telecommunications Market meeting at Casa Llotja de Mar in Barcelona on Dec. 10, 2008.

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