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France Launches A Probe Into 3 Ministers' Response To The Coronavirus Pandemic

Jul 21, 2020
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Three senior ministers in France are under investigation after nearly a hundred complaints were filed by doctors, patients and the families of victims of the coronavirus. They are accused of failing to act quickly enough to stop the pandemic. France is the first country to launch such a probe. But as reporter Rebecca Rosman reports, those behind the landmark investigation hope it will encourage others elsewhere.

REBECCA ROSMAN, BYLINE: In February, Ludovic Toro, a doctor working in the Paris suburbs, wrote the French government with a stark warning. The new coronavirus first seen in China was circulating widely in France, he said, and hospitals were not prepared.

LUDOVIC TORO: (Speaking French).

ROSMAN: In the letter, Toro says he begged the government to send more test kits, masks and other protective gear to his hospital. But for months, nothing came. Then Toro's worst fears became reality. Hospital staff started falling ill with the virus. Two of his colleagues died. He says these deaths and many others could have been prevented if the state had acted quicker and been better prepared. France's death toll has exceeded 30,000 so far, the third worst total in Europe.

TORO: How is it possible that in France, the sixth largest world power, we didn't have enough equipment to protect us?

ROSMAN: In March Toro and his colleagues filed complaints against then-Prime Minister Edouard Philippe along with the former health minister Agnes Buzyn and her replacement Olivier Veran. Earlier this month, a special court said it would investigate some of the accusations, including that all three had, quote, "failed to fight a disaster." If convicted, they could face up to two years in jail and thousands of euros in fines. Fabrice Di Vizio is the lawyer representing Toro and other doctors. He says the final straw was an interview former health minister Buzyn gave to the newspaper Le Monde in mid-March, declaring that she knew that in January how bad the pandemic was going to be.

FABRICE DI VIZIO: (Through interpreter) And she said, quote, "I cried because I knew that the tsunami wave was coming our way." The issue with that is that doctors didn't have any masks. They didn't have any tests or scrubs. We had doctors die because of this. So when we heard her say that, we thought it was insane.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AGNES BUZYN: (Speaking French).

ROSMAN: When probed about the interview at a recent parliamentary hearing, Buzyn said her words were taken out of context. Other countries have begun looking into similar investigations. Prosecutors in northern Italy questioned the Italian prime minister last month over his government's handling of the pandemic response. Alexis Poulin is a French journalist and founder of the political news site Le Monde Moderne. He says the French investigation has great symbolism, but he doubts the accused will face any punishment.

ALEXIS POULIN: Because in France, we have a long history of elected people being never responsible and never guilty whatever they do. It seems that being elected is immunity better than any other in front of justice.

ROSMAN: But Dr. Ludovic Toro says it's not about putting the ministers in jail or ending their political careers; it's about holding politicians accountable and acknowledging their mistakes.

TORO: (Speaking French).

ROSMAN: Otherwise, he says, we can't call France a democracy. That's what you call a monarchy.

For NPR News, I'm Rebecca Rosman in Paris.

(SOUNDBITE OF THOM YORKE SONG, "ATOMS FOR PEACE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.