A French court on Tuesday found the French subsidiary of Swedish furniture giant Ikea guilty of setting up an elaborate system to illegally spy on hundreds of employees and job applicants from 2009 to 2012.

The company's French unit was fined one million euros ($ 1.2 million) and former CEO Jean-Louis Baillot was handed a suspended two-year prison sentence, the court said in its verdict.

The ruling was less severe than recommended by prosecutors, who accused the furniture company of illicitly carrying out "mass surveillance."

Baillot, Ikea France's boss between 1996 and 2002, was also fined 50,000 euros after found guilty of "receiving personal data by fraudulent means."

He was cleared of some other charges, including violating professional secrecy.

His lawyer, Francois Saint-Pierre, said Baillot was "shocked" by the sentence and was considering an appeal.

A union representative, Adel Amara, who was among a total of 120 plaintiffs, said he was "pleased" with the outcome of the trial, but called the punishments "a little too lenient."

- Background -

A French court ruled on claims Swedish furniture giant Ikea set up an elaborate system to illegally spy on hundreds of employees and job applicants from 2009 to 2012, using private detectives as well as police.

Prosecutors asked for a fine of two million euros ($2.4 million) to make an example of Ikea France and a three-year prison sentence for its former chief executive Jean-Louis Baillot, two of them suspended.

Baillot has denied any wrongdoing, pinning the blame on the group's former head of risk management Jean-Francois Paris, who has admitted sending lists of names of people "to be tested" to a private security firm, Eirpace.

Fifteen people have been charged in the case alongside Ikea France, including former store managers, police officials and the head of Eirpace.

They largely refused any responsibility for the illicit surveillance during a two-week trial in March in the Paris suburb of Versailles.

But state prosecutor Pamela Tabardel said some 400 people had been illegally targeted by a programme of "mass surveillance," and urged judges to send a "strong message" on the threat of illegal spying by employers.

"What's at stake is the protection of our private lives against the threat of mass surveillance," she said at the trial proceedings in March.

The officials are accused of breach of professional secrecy and the illegal dissemination of private data, including illicit access to police files.

- Reputation hit -

Journalists uncovered the surveillance scheme in 2012 and magistrates began investigating after the Force Ouvriere (FO) union lodged a legal complaint.

The trial is centred only on alleged spying from 2009 to 2012, but prosecutors say the system was set up nearly a decade earlier.

They have accused Paris, the former risk manager, of routinely requesting personal information from private investigators, whose combined annual bill could run up to 600,000 euros, according to court documents seen by AFP.

In one case, Paris wanted to know how an employee could afford to drive a brand-new BMW convertible, while in another he sought to know why an employee in Bordeaux had "suddenly become a protester."

Such messages usually went to Jean-Pierre Foures, the boss of Eirpace, who prosecutors say obtained data from the police database STIC with the help of four officers also on trial.

Prosecutors have asked for Foures to be jailed one year but his lawyer has called for him to be acquitted.

Emmanuel Daoud, a lawyer for Ikea France, rejected the spying accusations, but acknowledged that the case had revealed "organisational weaknesses."

He said the company had since implemented an action plan, including a complete revamp of hiring procedures.

"Whatever the court rules, the company has already been punished very severely in terms of its reputation," he said ahead of the trial.

Founded in 1943, Swedish multinational Ikea is famous for its ready-to-assemble furniture, kitchen appliances and home accessories which are sold in around 400 stores worldwide.