France Telecom’s deputy chief executive Louis-Pierre Wenes has resigned from the firm, becoming the first high-profile executive to step down following criticism of the high number of suicide cases at the French telecoms giant. 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. According to an Associated Press report, Wenes and current chief executive Didier Lombard had faced calls to resign after 24 workers have killed themselves in 20 months. 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. “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.

Wenes’ resignation appears to represent a victory for the opposition parties and trade unions that had criticised the firm for management practices they say have pushed some vulnerable staff members to the edge. Wenes was singled out as the main architect of a raft of operational changes and cost-cutting at the firm over the last few years. “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. A spokesman for President Nicolas Sarkozy’s ruling UMP party also welcomed his resignation as “a very important move.” The resignation may also tone down calls for CEO Lombard to resign. France Telecom – the company behind the Orange mobile brand – is still 27 percent-owned by the French state and 65 percent of its estimated 100,000 employees are classed as civil servants. Lombard has reportedly retained the support of the French state.