Deputy CEO replaced at France Telecom amid suicide scandal


France Telecom, which is fighting off controversy over a wave of staff suicides, has replaced its deputy chief executive Louis-Pierre Wenes, with Stephane Richard

AFP, FRANCE 24 – France Telecom, which is at the centre of controversy in France over a wave of staff suicides, on Monday replaced its deputy chief executive Louis-Pierre Wenes.

The company said that Stephane Richard, who is meant to take over the leadership of the former state telecoms giant in 2011, would come in early to take Wenes place.

OCTOBER 5 UPDATE

France Telecom announced the replacement of the group’s deputy head Louis-Pierre Wenes, whom labour unions claim is the man behind stress-inducing management policies blamed for a tense working climate. The French telecom company has come under fire for the alarming suicide rate among staff members, with 24 employees having taken their lives in the last 18 months alone.

Wenes has been replaced by Stephen Richard, a former cabinet director for French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde, who joined France Telecom on September 1 and was being groomed to replace the group’s CEO, Didier Lombard, in 2011.

French socialist and communist opposition leaders have been calling for the resignation of both Lombard and Wenes, but the group’s chief executive enjoys the backing of the French government. Lagarde reasserted her “full and unwavering support” for the troubled CEO after the two met last Thursday. According to the website of French weekly Le Point, the finance minister mentioned Richard as a possible replacement for Wenes at that meeting.

A concession to unions

News of Wenes’ departure was greeted with satisfaction by employees and union members. “Wenes is symbolic: he was responsible for ‘terror management’ tactics. He had to leave”, CFE-CGC union member Pierre Morville told AFP.

CFDT union member Pierre Dubois told FRANCE 24 that Wenes’ ousting was the logical consequence of his perceived insensitiveness to employee suicides. A second sticking point was his refusal to negotiate on the policy of forced transfers, whereby France Telecom managers are required to change postings every three years.

France Telecom, which had suspended forced transfers until October 31, announced on Monday that the halt was prolonged until December 31.

According to Ivan Le Roy, author of a book on “management by stress” at France Telecom’s mobile phone unit Orange, Richard is “well perceived by most unions, or at least much better than Wenes, who was despised as a ‘cost killer’ from day 1”.

“There was never any kind of dialogue with Wenes”, Dubois told FRANCE 24. “He never accepted to meet us, not until we published an open letter calling for his resignation on September 25”. On September 24, Wenes had told French magazine Le Nouvel Observateur that he would consider himself “the victim of a monstrous manipulation” if he were to take on the responsibility of employee suicides.

Deontological concerns

Although most unions are hopeful that negotiations will start afresh with Richard, some warn against hasty optimism.

Iin a joint press release, leftwing unions Sud and Solidaires said: “The nomination of Stéphane Richard, a close collaborator of President Nicolas Sarkozy, has raised concern among employees about the future of France Telecom. We hope he will rapidly shed light on his future role”. Dubois was also cautious: “Richard remains a big question mark – we don’t know much about him. We hope the management style will change, and that he will bring a fresh look to the heart of the issue: restructuring France Telecom”.

Deontological concerns surfaced immediately after Richard’s nomination. As a former member of government, he has been authorised to join France Telecom on condition that he “abstain from any contact with the cabinet of the finance until June 30, 2012”. However, it is not altogether clear how Richard is expected to do so, given that the state is one of the company’s main shareholders.

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