Chief prosecutor opens inquiry into France’s handling of virus crisis

A medical staff caring for a patient affected by Covid-19 in the ICU unit of a hospital outside Paris on April 10. (AP pic)

PARIS: The chief prosecutor of Paris said Tuesday that he had opened a probe into the French state’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak, with possible charges including “involuntary homicide” and “endangering life”.

The investigation, which comes after complaints were filed by civil groups and members of the public, is not aimed at determining “political or administrative responsibility,” Remy Heitz told AFP, but whether national decision-makers had committed “possible criminal offences”.

President Emmanuel Macron, as head of state, has immunity from prosecution and is not a target of the inquiry, nor are government ministers who can be held accountable only by the Republican Court of Justice, an administrative tribunal, which has itself received 80 complaints, Heitz said.

The complaints relate to the alleged failure to put in place anti-virus protections at the workplace, to provide face masks to reduce infection, and to roll out testing to diagnose carriers of a virus that has claimed more than 29,000 lives in France.

The Paris prosecutor’s office has jurisdiction over issues of national public health, and over crimes allegedly committed within the borders of the city, where most of the state authorities targeted by Heitz’s inquiry are based.

They include Jerome Salomon, head of the Sante Publique France health agency, who has gained widespread prominence from his nightly summaries of the virus’s toll at the height of the outbreak.

His agency will also be a focus of the inquiry, as is the health ministry and the national prison administration.

Old age homes, many of which are privately operated, are not part of the probe.

Heitz said the investigation arose from complaints lodged by associations, labour unions and individuals.

Possible charges of involuntary homicide, involuntary injury, endangering life, failure to combat a threat and non-assistance to persons in danger are now being examined by a branch of the prosecutor’s office dedicated to alleged threats to public health.

“If there is criminal wrongdoing, it will probably have been – it’s a hypothesis – unintentional,” Heitz said.