France launches an investigation into the response of 3 ministers to the coronavirus pandemic

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Three senior French ministers are under investigation after nearly a hundred complaints were filed by doctors, patients and families of coronavirus victims. They are accused of not having acted quickly enough to stop the pandemic. France is the first country to launch such a probe. But as journalist Rebecca Rosman reports, those responsible for the landmark investigation hope she will encourage others elsewhere.

REBECCA ROSMAN, BYLINE: In February, Ludovic Toro, a doctor working in the Paris suburbs, wrote to the French government with a stern warning. The new coronavirus first seen in China was circulating widely in France, he said, and hospitals were unprepared.

LUDOVIC TORO: (Speaking French).

ROSMAN: In the letter, Toro says he pleaded with 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 came true. Hospital staff began to get sick from the virus. Two of his colleagues died. He says these deaths and many more could have been avoided if the state had acted faster and better prepared. France’s death toll has passed 30,000 so far, the third worst total in Europe.

TORO: How is it possible that in France, the sixth largest power in the world, we don’t have enough equipment to protect ourselves?

ROSMAN: In March, Toro and his colleagues filed complaints against then-Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, along with former Health Minister Agnès Buzyn and her replacement Olivier Veran. Earlier this month, a special court said it would investigate some of the charges, including that the three had, quote, “failed to fight a disaster.” If found guilty, they face up to two years in prison and thousands of euros in fines. Fabrice Di Vizio is the lawyer representing Toro and other doctors. He says the last straw was an interview former Health Minister Buzyn gave to Le Monde in mid-March, stating that she knew that in January the severity of the pandemic was going to be.

FABRICE DI VIZIO: (Through interpreter) And she said, quote: “I cried because I knew the tsunami wave was coming. The problem with this is that the doctors did not have a mask. They haven’t had any tests or scrubs. We have killed doctors because of it. So when we heard her say that, we thought it was crazy.

(SOUND PRESENTATION OF THE ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AGNES BUZYN: (speaking French).

ROSMAN: Asked about the interview at a recent parliamentary hearing, Buzyn said her comments were taken out of context. Other countries have started to look at similar surveys. Prosecutors in northern Italy asked the Italian prime minister last month about his government’s handling of the pandemic response. Alexis Poulin is a French journalist and founder of the political information site Le Monde Moderne. He says the French investigation has great symbolism, but he doubts the accused will be punished.

ALEXIS POULIN: Because in France, we have a long history of elected officials who are never responsible and never guilty whatever they do. It seems that being elected is a better immunity than any other before the courts.

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

TORO: (speaking French).

ROSMAN: Otherwise, he said, you can’t call France a democracy. This is what you call a monarchy.

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

(SONG BY THOM YORKE SONG, “ATOMS FOR PEACE”) Transcription provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.



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