The economic crisis has been hard for workers all over the world. And now there are accusations that it has been deadly at one French company. In the last year and a half at France Telecom, there have been 24 suicides. Many of the employees who took their lives directly blamed the company in suicide notes.

Eleanor Beardsley has the story.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: The latest death at France Telecom came on Monday when a 51-year-old man jumped from a highway bridge in the French Alps. The employee, who was married with two children, left a note blaming the work atmosphere for his decision to end his life.

Eight suicides have taken place since the beginning of the summer alone. One young woman jumped from her office window, another man hung himself in his cubicle.

(Soundbite of office)

BEARDSLEY: Sad and angry workers gathered at France Telecom offices around the country this week, including its headquarters in Paris.

Fifty-two-year-old Gauthier Rollin has been employed by the company for 20 years. He says the work environment has been unbearable since France Telecom was privatized a decade ago.

Mr. GAUTHIER ROLLIN: (Through Translator) France Telecom has spent its time breaking up teams and breaking down solidarity. They cultivate individualism and selfishness, so the support you might have found amongst your colleagues in difficult times isn't there. France Telecom manages its employees like cattle.

BEARDSLEY: A former state monopoly, France Telecom was deregulated in 1998 and now competes on the world market. It has undergone several major reorganizations in recent years and cut 22,000 jobs in the last two. But company officials say those were voluntary departures and that the firm has avoided the mass layoffs of other telecom giants.

(Soundbite of booing)

BEARDSLEY: France Telecom's chief executive, Didier Lombard, is facing calls to stand down. There are also calls for an inquiry into working conditions blamed for pushing staff over the edge. Lombard was booed as he arrived at headquarters yesterday and talked to reporters.

Mr. DIDIER LOMBARD (Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, France Telecom): (Through Translator) The pressure is necessary because we have to compete on the world market. But there is a way to be more humane in doing so.

BEARDSLEY: France Telecom has suspended the company's Time to Move program, which forced managers to change posts every three years. It has also put in place a team of psychologists to help workers.

The suicides have become the talk of TV news shows and newspaper editorial pages. In a country where five weeks of vacation and the 35-hour workweek are supposed to cut down on work stress, there has been much fulminating over the cause of the suicides.

Workplace lawyer Christophe Mesnooh thinks they may be linked to France Telecom's specific situation.

Mr. CHRISTOPHE MESNOOH (Lawyer): (Through Translator) Because of France Telecom's change in status from a public company to a private firm subject to free-market forces, the management have the heavy task of explaining this new world to its employees. And the irony is that the company has communicated much better with the market and its competitors than with its own employees.

BEARDSLEY: As the debate rages whether the suicides were provoked by vicious globalization, the company's cynical management, or mollycoddled state workers being made to face up to reality, France Telecom seems to be doing its utmost to avoid another one. One trade union has suggested the government levy a suicide tax on companies to make sure they maintain a decent work environment.

For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.

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