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What next after France’s former health minister charged over Covid crisis?

France's former health minister has become the first to be charged as part of a long-running enquiry into the handling of the pandemic. Here's who else is under investigation and what happens next.

What next after France's former health minister charged over Covid crisis?
Former health minister Agnes Buzyn outside the court. Photo: Lucas Bariolet/AFP

Who is investigating?

The enquiry is being run by the Cour de justice de la République (CJR) – which is the only official body that has the power to prosecute and judge serving ministers for crimes or offences committed “in the exercise of their employment”. 

It acts after receiving complaints from members of the public or groups and can send them to its investigations committee if it deems them worthy of investigation. In this case, the court has received 14,500 complaints, which it has filtered down to 16 complaints on different topics, which are now being investigated.

It has a wide remit and can look at how political decisions were made into the handling of the crisis.

The court also has the power to order police searches – and this is what happened in October 2020 when homes and offices of top health officials were raided.

What is being investigated?

The pandemic was a disaster for France in which 115,000 people have died.

The CRJ’s investigation, while acknowledging that this was a worldwide pandemic, will focus on whether the French government handled the crisis in the best way possible, given the available information at the time.

There will be a heavy focus on France’s preparedness in the years leading up the pandemic, as well as the actions the government took once it became obvious what was happening in Wuhan.

Early messaging to the public will also be examined, along with more specific issues with protective clothing for health workers. 

Who is being investigated?

The CRJ is reported to be currently focusing on three people;

Agnès Buzyn – health minister from May 2017 to February 16th 2020. She was largely responsible for France’s pre-pandemic planning and the preparation as what began as a health crisis in China became a global pandemic.

She left her role just weeks before France went into lockdown – she was a last-minute substitution for Emmanuel Macron’s party in the Paris mayoral election after the previous candidate Benjamin Griveaux stepped down after a sex tape scandal. Despite the unexpected consequences of Griveaux’s moment of self-pleasure, he is not involved in the investigation.

Buzyn has since taken up a role at the World Health Organisation in Geneva.

Olivier Véran – health minister from February 16th, 2020 to the present day. The man with one of the toughest starts to a new job in recent history, Véran has been responsible for France’s day-to-day handling of the pandemic, as well as the vaccination campaign, over the past 18 months.

The former neurologist has emerged as a cautious figure, and was widely reported to have advocated for a third lockdown in spring 2021, before being overruled by his boss Macron.

Edouard Philippe – prime minister from May 2017 to July 2020. The man in charge at the beginning of the health crisis, including the first nationwide lockdown, Philippe lost his job as PM in summer 2020 after Macron conducted a reshuffle of his cabinet.

However, others have been mentioned in the course of the investigation, including having their homes and offices searched;

Jérôme Salomon – Director General of Health. The above are all politicians, but Salomon is a civil servant. He is a doctor and a specialist in infectious diseases, taking up the public health role in 2018. Somewhat sidelined in recent months, in the early part of the pandemic he was the public face of the government’s health policies, giving weekly televised briefings on the latest health situation and the policies that were in place.

Geneviève Chêne – Director of Santé Publique France. Another civil servant, she is head of the public health body which has played a major role in communications during the health crisis, among other responsibilities. 

Sibeth Ndiaye – government spokesperson from April 2019 to July 2020. The government spokesperson in France holds a ministerial position and she was responsible for communicating to the public much of the early information on the pandemic, including recommendations on masks and social distancing.

What’s happening?

The CJR probe was launched in July 2020, and raids were conducted on the homes and offices of Véran and Salomon in October.

Since then, things went rather quiet, but that has changed on Friday with news that Buzyn had been summoned for a hearing before the court.

She began her testimony on Friday and afterwards was placed under official criminal investigation (mis en examen) a stage similar to being charged with an offence under the UK judicial system.

She was charged with “endangering the lives of others”, the prosecutor of the Republic’s Court of Justice said, but not for a second possible offence of “failure to stop a disaster”.

Full details of her charge have not been released, but much of the focus has been on Buzyn’s public statements during the early days of the crisis.

She said in January 2020 that there was “practically no risk” of Covid-19 spreading to France from the Chinese city of Wuhan, and then went on to say that the “risk of a spread of the coronavirus among the population is very small”.

It is expected that Véran and Philippe will also be summoned to answer questions before the court, although no timetable has been released for this.

‘Failure to stop a disaster’ is an offence punishable under Article 223-7 of the French Criminal Code, which has a maximum penalty of up to two years’ imprisonment and a fine of €30,000.

Member comments

  1. I don’t know about the preparedness of the French authorities, but I do know that certain politicians in France and elsewhere certainly undermined confidence in the AZ vaccine and consequently in the overall take-up of vaccinations. Should they be held culpable for that if that is the French system ?

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POLITICS

Newly appointed French Minister faces rape allegations

The final composition of the new French government was announced on Friday. A new investigation suggests that historic rape allegations against a newly appointed minister were ignored.

Newly appointed French Minister faces rape allegations

It didn’t take long for scandal to hit the France’s new government.

An investigation by Mediapart published the day after the final list of ministerial positions was announced revealed that two women have accused one of the appointees of rape. 

READ MORE Who’s who in France’s new government?

Damien Abad, the new Solidarity Minister denies the allegations and a police investigation into one allegation was dropped in 2017. But another could be about to open. 

Who is Damien Abad? 

Damien Abad is a 42-year-old son of a miner from Nimes in southern France who became the first handicapped MP to be elected in 2012. He has arthrogryposis, a rare condition that affects the joints.

Prior to his appointment as the Minister for Solidarity, Autonomy and Disabled People, he was the leader of the France’s right-wing Republicans party in the Assemblée nationale

What are the allegations? 

Two alleged victims, who didn’t know each other, told Mediapart that Abad raped them on separate occasions in 2010 and 2011.

The first woman described meeting Abad for dinner after having met him weeks earlier at a wedding. She said she blacked out after one glass of champagne and woke up in her underwear in a hotel bed with Abad the next morning fearing she had been drugged. 

A second woman who lodged a formal charge against Abad in 2017 said that he harassed her by text message for years. She eventually agreed to meet with him one evening. After initially consenting, she told him to stop – but her plea fell on deaf ears as Abad raped her. 

What does Abad have to say? 

The new minister denies the accusations.

“It is physically impossible for me to commit the acts described,” he told Mediapart – in reference to his disability. 

He admitted to sending “sometimes intimate” messages, but said he had “obviously never drugged anyone”. 

“I was able to have adventures, I stand by my claim that they were always consensual.”

Is he under investigation? 

The second alleged victim made a formal allegation against Abad in 2017. 

A subsequent investigation was dropped later that year after a “lack of sufficient evidence was gathered”.

Mediapart report that Abad’s entourage were not questioned by police and that the MP told investigators that he had no memory of the alleged crime. 

The first alleged victim flagged the abuse to the Observatory of Sexist and Sexual Violence in Politics – an unofficial watchdog monitoring elected bodies – earlier this month. 

The Observatory has since brought the case to the state prosecutor, but it is unclear if another investigation will be launched.  

Who knew? 

The tone deaf appointment of Gérald Darmanin as Interior Minister in 2020 was controversial because at the time he was under investigation for rape. His nomination was met with street protests in Paris and elsewhere. Feminists accused (and continue to accuse) Emmanuel Macron of not taking sexual violence seriously. 

The investigation into Darmanin’s alleged crime has since been dropped.

Some will question whether the naming of Abad shows that lessons have not been learned. 

“Once again a minister  in the government of Emmanuel Macron accused of rape,” said Caroline De Haas, the founder of the #NousToutes feminist movement. 

The Observatory sent a message warning senior party figures in the Republicans and LREM about the allegations on Monday – prior to Abad’s nomination. 

France’s new Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne denied having any knowledge of the warning. 

“I am going to be very clear on all these questions of harassment and sexual violence, there will be no impunity,” she said during a visit to Calvados. 

“If there are new elements, if the courts are summoned, we will accept the consequences.” 

READ MORE Who is Élisabeth Borne, France’s new PM?

The Observatory meanwhile claims it has been ignored. 

“Despite our alerts, Damien Abad who is accused of rape has been named in government. Thoughts and support to the victims,” it tweeted

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