Prosecutor to probe France's handling of coronavirus crisis
Remy Heitz wants to establish whether national decision-makers had committed 'possible criminal offences'.
The Paris chief prosecutor said Tuesday 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 preliminary investigation, which comes after around 40 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 Court of Justice of the Republic (CJR), 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.
On Tuesday, another 87 deaths were reported.
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 national authorities targeted by Heitz's inquiry are based.
The complaints filed with prosecutors targeted figures including Jerome Salomon, head of the Sante Publique France health agency, who gained widespread prominence from his nightly summaries of the virus' 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.
- Investigate 'with caution' -
Care homes for th elderly, many of which are privately operated, are not part of the probe however.
Heitz said the investigation arose from complaints lodged by associations, labour unions and individuals, including people who had lost loved ones to the pandemic.
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 that focuses on alleged threats to public health.
"If there is criminal wrongdoing, it will probably have been -- it's a hypothesis -- unintentional," Heitz said.
To prove liability, the evidence would have to show a wilful fault, not simple negligence, said the prosecutor, adding the investigation "must be carried out with caution".
He said the probe would also consider the state of scientific knowledge that authorities had about the disease, mask use and testing, when they made their decisions.
In France, as in other countries, people accuse the government of having lied about the efficacy of face masks at the start of the pandemic to reserve limited stocks for front-line medical personnel.
While advising initially that masks be worn only by doctors, nurses, and people with symptoms, they are now obligatory on public transport in France and many companies and retailers require staff and clients to wear them too.
Almost a month after the first easing of a lockdown, French officials are now confident that the virus is on the wane in the country while still urging caution.
An iconic indication is the Eiffel Tower's scheduled reopening on June 25.
But Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire warned Tuesday that "hundreds of thousands" of people would still lose their jobs as companies go bankrupt owing to the impact of lockdown measures to fight the pandemic.
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