PARIS – A special French court ordered an investigation Friday of three current or former government ministers over their handling of the coronavirus crisis.
COVID-19 patients, doctors, prison personnel, police officers and others in France filed an unprecedented 90 complaints in the Court of Justice of the Republic over recent months, notably over shortages of masks and other equipment as as the virus sped across Europe. The court usually only sees a few complaints a year.
The court, which deals with cases against top officials,said in a statement Friday that it threw out 44 of the 90 complaints, and is still studying 37 of them.
The nine it deemed worth investigating target former Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, who resigned hours before the court's announcement, Health Minister Olivier Veran or the former health minister, Agnes Buzyn.
They are accused of “failing to fight a disaster," and could face up to two years in prison and fines, if tried and convicted.
That was the only charge the court retained among multiple accusations in the 90 complaints, which included allegations of manslaughter and endangering lives. A conviction on those charges carries the potential for heavier prison terms.
Ten of the cases were closed because they didn’t provide enough justification for an investigation, according to a judicial official. The court said another 34 cases, targeting different government ministers, were thrown out for technical problems.
President Emmanuel Macron and his government have acknowledged mask shortages and other missteps in the virus crisis. France was also short of testing capacity and criticized for not imposing confinement measures earlier.
Macron himself cannot be targeted by lawsuits while in office because sitting presidents have immunity from prosecution.
On Friday, the French leader named as the new prime minister a longtime civil servant who coordinated France's strategy to reopen and recover economically from a two-month nationwide lockdown.
No mention was made of the investigation or legal troubles when Philippe resigned earlier in the day. Macron said he was reshuffling the government to focus on setting a “new path” for the remaining two years of his presidential term.
The Court of Justice of the Republic is the only French court where government ministers can be tried for their actions while in office, and was created in the wake of a major health scandal in the 1990s.
The new investigation is separate from dozens of lawsuits filed in other French courts against nursing homes or others accused of mismanaging the virus crisis.
France has reported the fifth-highest number of coronavirus deaths worldwide, for a total of 29,893 in the pandemic. About half took place in nursing homes.