The French have a reputation for demonstrating often, but they express their dissatisfaction very differently around corona. Namely through the court. Since the outbreak of the epidemic, charges have been brought against hospitals, government agencies and also ministers.
The Public Prosecution Service has received a total of 328 charges. “Up to now we have processed 253 of these. They are being investigated,” the public prosecutor said. “These include allegations of manslaughter and endangering human lives.”
Those complaints come from private individuals, police officers and healthcare providers, among others. For example, they accuse hospitals or their superiors of not providing good help against corona. In many cases this is due to the shortage of masks during the first corona wave.
Clara Bouaziz is one of the French who brought charges. Her father passed away last year after becoming infected with corona. She thinks the hospital deliberately did not treat him:
‘Agents and the population are endangered’
Another series of charges is directed against the French government. They must be submitted to the special Court of Justice, which is the only one to investigate whether ministers have committed criminal offenses. “We have received 153 complaints, of which we are investigating 14”, a spokesman for the Court said News hour.
The charges focus on Edouard Philippe, who was prime minister during the first corona wave, and on then and current health ministers Agnes Buzyn and Olivier Véran. Several ministries have already been searched in the context of that investigation. Véran’s home was also searched.
‘The French see care as a matter of safety’
It is not new that the French choose the judicial path, says sociologist Henri Bergeron. He specializes in public health policy and has also published about the corona crisis. “There have been health scandals in France before and always victims choose to go to court.”
According to him, this has a political-cultural cause. “In France, the national government traditionally presents itself as the only one concerned with the protection of the public health of the French. This is called ‘sécurité sanitaire’: it is about the safety of people.
“That creates a lot of expectations and it can lead to many disappointments, especially in a crisis like this. A virus is elusive, you never know how it develops, a mistake is easily made. And victims then point to the government as the culprit, because he keeps shouting: we are responsible for your health. “
When the government is asked for evidence that the virus is a major risk in restaurants, we hear nothing.
Lawyer Fabrice di Vizio thinks there is another reason at play. People are said to be afraid of taking to the streets and therefore mainly take the legal path. “Many people feel that it has become dangerous to still demonstrate. The French police have been tough since the Yellow Vests. Even Amnesty International has criticized the French repression.”
Di Vizio specializes in health matters. He represents a victim association around corona with general practitioners, care providers and restaurant owners. “In the hospitality industry they do not understand why everything is closed or the use of the curfew. If the government is asked for evidence that the virus is a major risk in restaurants, we do not hear anything.”
“In total, there are more than 2,000 clients who have gone to justice through their organizations or only as a private person. I certainly expect convictions will come. Times have changed. Politicians are no longer kept out of their hands.”
However, the number of French ministers convicted by the Court of Justice is extremely limited. In 2019, an ex-minister of justice was given a suspended prison sentence for fraud. In 2016, Christine Lagarde, the current president of the ECB, was found guilty of ‘carelessness’ in a case, without being punished.
Sociologist Bergeron is therefore cautious about the hundreds of charges. “It is still very questionable whether ministers can really be blamed for something criminal about corona.”
In any case, the various judicial investigations will not directly lead to legal proceedings. Both the Public Prosecution Service and the Court of Justice have announced that at the earliest, conclusions will be drawn next year: dismiss or prosecute.