In France, suicide can be a form of protest

By René Moerland in Paris

Employees of France Telecom took to the streets this week after a wave of suicides, blamed on "overwork" and "management terror". Is suicide for social or political reasons a French thing?

Some of Claire Vincent's colleagues at France Telecom keep a box of anti-depressants on their desks, out in the open. "When things get too much you just pop one," she said.

Vincent, who is 50, and has been with France Telecom for 27 years. When she started the company was called PTT (Postes, Télégraphes, Téléphones), and it was a state enterprise. Vincent was in the civil service then, and officially she still is today.

'This is not India!'

But everything else has changed. France Telecom was privatised in the 1990s, and is now the owner of the worldwide brand Orange. The company was restructured, 22,000 jobs were scrapped and Vincent was transferred from the technical services to the commercial department. She now works at a call centre. "I am deeply unhappy. It is hell," she said.

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This week Vincent, who belongs to the radical SUD union, took part in a demonstration with several hundred of her colleagues outside France Telecom's headquarters in Paris. In the drizzling rain she held up a sign saying: "French people! This is not India!"

Between 15 and 40 percent of France Telecom workers went on strike this week to protest "suffering at work". France Telecom has been at the centre of a controversy because of the alarming suicide rate among its workers: 24 since the beginning of last year. In the past two months things went form bad to worse: at least six people killed themselves, apparently due to problems at work.

'Management terror'

Last week, a 51-year-old France Telecom worker jumped to his death from a bridge over the A41 highway in northern France. A note found in his car said he had been unable to adapt to his new function, one he never aspired to. It blamed the company’s management.

Two weeks earlier, a 32-year-old woman took her own life by leaping from the fifth-floor window of a France Telecom building in Paris. She had emailed a suicide note to her father. Two days earlier, a male worker stabbed himself in the stomach during a meeting.

On July 14, a 52-year-old employee killed himself in Marseilles, leaving behind a note blaming "overwork" and "management by terror". He wrote: "I am committing suicide because of my work at France Telecom. That's the only reason."

This week France Telecom's number two, Pierre-Louis Wenes, was forced to resign. Wenes was accused of having created an "inhumane" climate at the company through constant transfers, hard to meet targets and high work pressure. A short film has been posted on the internet in which Wenes is seen answering a co-worker's question about what to say to customers about the suicides. Wenes tells her to say "there are no more suicides at France Telecom than before".

Social reasons

But is the suicide wave at France Telecom only a question of management? It is not the first controversy over high suicide rates in a specific company or sector in France: last year it was Renault, the year before teachers. Suicides among doctors and policemen have also been held to scrutiny.

What makes these French cases special? One recurrent feature of this controversy is the French eagerness to address the social context of the suicides. Suicide is usually associated with personal problems such as isolation. But in France, it seems, people can also commit suicide for 'social' reasons.

"Ah," responded psychiatrist and 'suicide expert' Michel Debout, "don’t forget that France is the country of Durkheim." Debout was referring to the French sociologist Emile Durkheim who in 1897 published a controversial study about the social backgrounds of suicide. According to Debout the suicides at France Telecom are part of a broader social crisis. "We are struggling with the place of the human being in the corporate environment and in society at large, and by extension with the meaning of our existence."

Debout sees France Telecom, where many of the workers are over 50 and have been with the company all their lives, as a perfect illustration of an environment where the transformation to a purely economic world causes psychological disorientation among the employees.

"The French traditionally have a strong bond with their work: it is not just an income, it is also their mission, their contribution to society. This function is disappearing as the world gets more and more focused on individual performance. This creates uncertainty."

In order to draw attention to the problem Debout published a comic book about suicide this month under the title 'Tout doit disparaître' (Everything must go). The first edition has a run of 20,000 copies.

Emma Bovary

"France has always had a high suicide rate," said sociologist and Durkheim expert Christian Baudelot. A lot higher than neighbouring countries like Britain, Spain or Italy. It has also been much more obsessed with suicide and its meaning. Emma Bovary, the character in Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary, serves as the symbol of French suicide, said Baudelot. Mistakenly so, according to the sociologist. Flaubert's character was a rich woman with an extensive social network. In reality French people who commit suicide are often poor, unemployed, elderly and alone.

Three years ago Baudelot, together with his colleague Roger Establet, published the latest definitive work on suicide in France. They discovered that people in France commit suicide as a form of protest more often than before. The key to understanding the French, said Baudelot, is not just Durkheim anymore, but also Bronislaw Malinowski, the Polish ethnologist. Malinowski described suicide as a scream of impotence, as a vindicative act.

This form of suicide is most common in depressing social environments where the victims have no room to express themselves, according to Manilowski. A classic example is Chinese women forced to live with their in-laws. And according to Baudelot the French are a lot like those Chinese women these days. "They no longer see a way out, in an economic system where job security takes second place to flexibility, competition and productivity."

Another French revolution?

France Telecom seems to have all the risk factors. Workers, often technically skilled, with a deep sense of their public mission, are now being asked to be commercial, flexible and market-oriented.

Outside France Telecom headquarters in Paris Claire Vincent was chatting with a few colleagues. The companies number two, Wenes, had just been replaced with Stéphane Richard, a former aide to finance minister Christine Lagarde who is rumoured to be France Telecom's next CEO. Richard has promised the workers "a new social contract" and has said he will "not accept that some workers come to work all stressed".

Vincent and her colleagues were sceptical. "We used to provide a service; now all we do is make money for the shareholders," said mechanic Erich Benn (55, 31 years with France Telecom). "We have become numbers, and it doesn't look like that's going to change."

His colleague Jean-Piere Manson (55, 28 years with France Telecom) said it annoys him that he is no longer helping 'subscribers' but 'customers', who have to pay before they are helped. "My boss, who is in charge of 700 workers, told us: don't dream, nothing's going to change."

Baudelot, the sociologist, doesn't believe in another French revolution as an alternative to capitalism. "Young people are all getting ready for a future with more flexibility and less certainty," he said.

But Debout, the psychiatrist, still believes in change. With his Foundation for the Prevention of Suicide he hopes to jump-start a broad debate about humanity. "Humanity is like the environment: it will take all of us to save it."

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