The trial, which opened at the Paris criminal court after midday on Monday, will look at whether the deaths were linked to a major restructuring overhaul as the company, now known as Orange, changed from public to private ownership.
It comes nearly seven years after former CEO Didier Lombard and the company first faced historic charges of workplace harassment, a first for a blue chip company in France's CAC-40 index.
Two former senior executives are also facing harassment charges and other former staff members are facing charges of complicity.
Businesses, unions and workforce analysts are expected to closely watch the trial, which is expected to last two months and which could end in a conviction for institutional psychological harassment.
Despite having some of the world’s strongest labour laws, France has seen increasing concern over workplace depression, long-term illness, burnout and suicide in recent years.
Suicides came at time of restructuring
France Telecom underwent major restructuring after it was privatised in 2004, including a plan to cut 22,000 jobs out of its then 120,000-strong workforce.
Prosecutors say the company, including Lombard, introduced a policy of unsettling employees in order to induce them to quit as part of the restructuring plans.
Investigators accuse the former CEO of implementing “a corporate policy aimed at undermining the employees by creating a professional climate which provoked anxiety” in a summary of charges seen by AFP agency.
The investigation outlined haphazard restructures, forcing people to move around geographically and repeatedly pushing incentives for them to resign.
The wave of suicides included that of a 51-year-old technical from Marseille who left a suicide note accusing bosses of “management by terror” before killing herself in July 2008 and that of a 32-year-old woman who jumped out of the window of her Paris office before horrified colleagues two months later.
Lombard resigned over the deaths in March 2010.
Former CEO spoke of ‘suicide fad’
Unions and management accept that 35 France Telecom employees took their own lives between 2008 and 2009 and that Lombard stepped down as a result of the deaths.
Lombard, who ran the company between 2005 and 2010, recognised he had committed “an enormous gaffe” when he spoke of a “suicide fad” at the company.
The former chief executive also vowed to senior executives in 2006 that he would “get people to leave one way or another, either through the window or the door”.
Also on trial are Lombard’s former number two Louis-Pierre Wenes, human resources director Olivier Barberot and another four facing charges of complicity.
If convicted, they could face a year behind bars and a 15,000-euro fine.
The company itself could face a 75,000-euro fine if found guilty of “moral harassment”, which is defined as “frequently repeated acts whose aim or effect is the degradation of working conditions”.
Sebastian Crozier, head of the CFE-CGC union representing workers at Orange, said the trial was about the use of “social violence as a method of management”.