France Telecom number two resigns over staff suicides
France Telecom's deputy chief executive Louis-Pierre Wenes, architect of a modernisation drive at the former state monopoly that is blamed for a wave of staff suicides, resigned on Monday.
Stephane Richard, an ex-aide to the French finance minister who is to take over as CEO in 2011, will step up early to replace Wenes, the company said.
Wenes and current chief executive Didier Lombard had faced calls to resign after 24 workers killed themselves in 20 months, but Lombard retained the support of the French state, which still owns 27% of the firm.
France Telecom said instead that Wenes, who has been attacked by unions as the engineer of cost-cutting measures blamed for causing widespread stress, had tendered his resignation.
Wenes, who will remain an advisor to the chief executive, linked his decision to resign to the wave of suicides, in a statement to France Telecom staff obtained by AFP.
"Despite the hard edge of the technological and economic fight, especially in our business, nothing can justify men and women putting an end to their lives. Today, like before, I cannot accept it," he said.
A former state monopoly which employs 100,000 people in France and trades internationally as Orange, the telecoms giant has undergone major restructuring, which unions say have left workers stressed and demoralised.
Wenes, 60, joined France Telecom in 2002 and from 2005, he oversaw a programme called "Next" to modernise the firm, in which many employees still have protected civil servant status.
In 2006 he became responsible for operations in France and for changes throughout the group. Since February he has been deputy chief executive.
"Wenes is a symbol, he is the one who brought in the management of terror, he has to go," said Pierre Morville of the CFE-CGC union, which represents executive-level staff.
A spokesman for President Nicolas Sarkozy's ruling UMP party welcomed his resignation as "a very important move."
Patrice Diochet of the CFTC union said it was "a first step in showing France Telecom's will to change its management culture," although Sandrine Leroy of the FO union said the gesture was mainly "symbolic".
Last month Lombard vowed to end the "spiral of death" at the firm by setting up a distress line, offering more psychological counselling and putting a freeze on all staff transfers until October 31.
Trade unions said on Monday that the company had told them it was extending the freeze until the end of the year.
But they maintained a call for two days of strikes and protests on Tuesday and Wednesday.
The company was further embarrassed on Monday by a video released on the Internet showing Lombard at a management seminar earlier this year giving a speech about the need for France Telecom staff to adapt to a changing market.
"Those who think they can just stick to their routine and not worry about a thing, are sorely mistaken," he warns in the film, before suggesting that staff in the French provinces spent much of their time at the beach.