French prosecutors brought preliminary charges against a former health minister over her actions during the first months of the coronavirus pandemic, part of a probe that is examining how the government of President Emmanuel Macron responded to the crisis.
Agnès Buzyn was charged on Friday with endangering the lives of others by the Court of Justice of the Republic, a special French court that prosecutes misconduct by government ministers, a spokeswoman for the court said. Ms. Buzyn, a hematologist, was health minister from May 2017 until February 2020, when Mr. Macron tapped her to be his party’s candidate in an unsuccessful bid to be Paris mayor.
Ms. Buzyn is the first member of Mr. Macron’s government to be charged in an investigation that is gearing up seven months before he faces voters for re-election in April. Mr. Macron’s opponents have made the government’s management of the pandemic, which has left 115,000 dead in France, a central issue in the campaign. Investigators have searched the offices and homes of several members of the government, including former Prime Minister Édouard Philippe.
Ms. Buzyn’s lawyer didn’t respond to a request for comment. The preliminary charge against her carries a maximum penalty of a year in prison. Under French law, preliminary charges allow officials to deepen their investigation, leading either to the defendant standing trial or the charges being dismissed without a trial.
In January 2020, before the pandemic swept across France and Europe, Ms. Buzyn played down the threat from the virus, which was then spreading quickly through Wuhan in China. “The risk of propagation of the coronavirus in the population is very low,” she said at a press conference on Jan. 24, two days after the World Health Organization said there was evidence that humans could transmit the virus to each other.
In March 2020, after coming in third in the first round of the mayoral election, Ms. Buzyn faced criticism when she told French daily Le Monde that “when I left the ministry, I was crying because I knew that the tsunami was in front of us” and called the election a masquerade.
The prosecutors were also considering charging Ms. Buzyn with failing to stop a disaster, a crime punishable by up to two years in prison under French law. But instead, prosecutors designated her as a material witness to their investigation on that charge, the spokeswoman for the court said.
It remains unclear who else in Mr. Macron’s government is under investigation. Mr. Macron’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.
France’s response to the pandemic was hamstrung by some of the same failings seen in the U.S. and other European countries. The country had few masks and other protective gear stockpiled at the start of the crisis, leaving doctors and nurses with shortfalls at the beginning of the pandemic. Ms. Buzyn and other health authorities played down the risks of the virus even as it was spreading below the radar.
The government was slow to lock down nursing homes; Mr. Macron visited one in March 2020 with a group of officials and journalists just as cases were surging.
France ended up with one of the developed world’s highest Covid-19 death tolls, though lower than the U.K. and Italy, and far lower than the U.S.
During a hearing before the French legislature in June 2020, Ms. Buzyn defended her performance in the early months of the pandemic and her decision to leave the health ministry. She said she activated the country’s emergency health system to free up hospital beds that would be needed to care for Covid-19 patients.
“I believe that I prepared the health system and could act as mayor.” she said. “But things didn’t turn out that way.”
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