By Rick Noack,
Lucas Barioulet AFP/Getty Images
MARSEILLE, France — France’s former health minister Agnès Buzyn was placed under formal investigation Friday for “endangering the lives of others” in the coronavirus pandemic, court officials told several French news agencies, marking one of the first such judicial cases worldwide.
Buzyn was only in office until the early days of the pandemic — she resigned in mid-February 2020 and went on to unsuccessfully run for Paris mayor — but the investigation against her could still spell trouble for President Emmanuel Macron, who is expected to run for reelection next spring.
Several of his current or former ministers and top officials may similarly be investigated in the coming weeks, including current Health Minister Olivier Véran and former prime minister Édouard Philippe.
Amid a widening inquiry into their role during the pandemic, French authorities searched the homes of Véran, Philippe, Buzyn and other French top officials last October. The searches were ordered by France’s Cour de Justice de La Republique, a special court tasked with investigating wrongdoing by members of the government.
Ahead of Friday’s decision to place her under investigation, Buzyn had defended her track record during the pandemic and vowed to “reestablish the truth.”
France has so far reported more than 115,000 deaths from covid-19 and almost 7 million cases. It has recorded fewer per capita deaths and infections than the United States, but more than some of its neighboring countries.
Cases have recently surged again in the country’s south, with infection and hospitalization rates particularly high in Marseille, where vaccination rates are lagging behind the national average. France recently imposed a health pass to put more pressure on holdouts to get vaccinated, but critics accuse the government of having failed to sufficiently target disadvantaged citizens.
In neighboring Italy, which has reported a higher total death toll than France, the prime minister and several members of the cabinet were questioned by prosecutors last year in an investigation with a scope similar to the one in France. Nobody has been charged.
France was one of the first countries to impose a strict lockdown in response to the virus, but it still recorded one of Europe’s highest death tolls in the first wave.
Critics blame Macron and his government for having been too slow to procure personal protective equipment, for having confused the public with a U-turn on mask-wearing and for having allowed the virus to spread uncontrolled for too long.
Though the French government has pointed at similar problems in other European countries, Macron acknowledged in April last year that “our country was not sufficiently ready for this crisis.”
“We will all draw all the consequences,” he said at the time.
Buzyn drew a similar conclusion, telling France’s Le Monde newspaper in March last year that “when I left the ministry, I cried because I knew that the tsunami wave was in front of us.”
“We should have stopped everything, it was a masquerade,” she said.
Despite her admission, Buzyn was later named World Health Organization envoy, tasked with multilateral affairs.