Coronavirus: Lawsuits fly in France as blame game begins

Prime minister and health ministers pursued in court for alleged manslaughter

My friend’s children, a daughter and son-in-law in their 40s, are holed up in their apartment, aching, coughing and barely able to move or look after their three-year-old child. The son-in-law suffers from asthma and is experiencing difficulty in breathing. The medics who came to their apartment confirmed Covid-19, but said there was still enough oxygen in his blood for him to remain at home.

In decades of friendship, I have never heard my friend so angry. "France is supposed to take care of people. This shouldn't be happening. For years they've run down the healthcare system. The politicians will pay for this!" she ranted.

Two months after the first cases of Covid-19 were confirmed in France, and more than 1,300 deaths later, the epidemic has not peaked yet.

But the blame game has started, and is manifesting itself in multiple lawsuits.

The Court of Justice of the Republic, a special jurisdiction established in 1993 for high-ranking officials, confirms that six lawsuits have been filed against the prime minister and current and previous health ministers, both medical doctors, on charges ranging from unwillful harm to involuntary manslaughter and endangering the lives of others.

If the prime minister or health ministers were convicted of these offences, they could in theory be sentenced to up to five years in prison and €75,000 in fines.

Five cases were filed by ordinary citizens, two on identical forms. Angry members of the public can download one of three forms addressed to the state prosecutor’s office, depending on whether they are medical personnel, a Covid-19 victim or a healthy citizen.

Prime minister Edouard Philippe raised the danger of litigation against cabinet ministers in a breakfast meeting of the parliamentary majority on March 24th, Le Monde reported.

One of the lawsuits, for “State lies” was filed by more than 600 doctors calling themselves the Covid-19 group. The three doctors who founded the group claim “the government knew of the dangers posed by the epidemic, yet failed to take the necessary measures, in particular stocking [surgical] masks and establishing systematic testing which would have made it possible to isolate ‘healthy carriers’.”

An online petition set up by psychologist Lucien Cavelier to support the Covid-19 lawsuit was signed by 248,208 people by 6pm on Thursday.

A seventh lawsuit, filed by a Covid-19 victim for “impeding assistance” has received coverage in French media but has not yet been received by the CJR. The court’s commission on admissibility will evaluate the legitimacy of the cases. The lawsuits are likely to be mainly symbolic, since the CJR is a court run by politicians for politicians and has never sent a defendant to prison.

Anti-malarial drug

At the same time, leaders of the conservative party Les Républicains and, separately, Socialists, in the National Assembly and Senate have demanded commissions of inquiry into the government's "lack of preparedness" and "lack of reaction" in the crisis.

The far right leader Marine Le Pen says the former health minister Agnès Buzyn, who stepped down last month to stand for mayor of Paris, "will probably have to explain herself in front of the CJR".

Buzyn has claimed she alerted the prime minister to the seriousness of the epidemic in January, but that he ignored her. Commentators believe she was hedging her bets in the event of post-epidemic legal action.

In the French territory of Guadeloupe, in the Caribbean, the UGTG trade union has filed an emergency claim against the state-run regional health service, the ARS, and the public hospital, demanding that the state provide 200,000 Covid-19 tests and a supply of the anti-malarial drug chloroquine, which French virologist Didier Raoult says can cure Covid-19. The case will be heard in Basse-Terre, Guadeloupe, on Friday.

Medical personnel have repeatedly appealed to yet another jurisdiction, the Council of State, to force the executive to act. This week, the council gave the government 48 hours to strengthen lockdown measures. The prime minister followed orders by banning residents from going out for more than one hour per day, or straying more than 1km from home.

Two health workers’ unions have now asked the council to rule on the provision of masks and other equipment for medical personnel, and the need for widespread testing.