Former French Health Minister Agnes Buzyn has been put under formal investigation over her handling of the coronavirus pandemic, prosecutors said Friday.
Buzyn, who was health minister from May 2017 to February 2020, had stepped down weeks after the first COVID cases were confirmed in France to run for mayor of Paris.
She could face trial by the Court of Justice of the Republic, which was set up to investigate wrongdoing by ministers.
Why is Agnes Buzyn being investigated?
The 58-year-old has faced criticism over her initial statements about the pandemic. In January 2020, she said there was "practically no risk" of importing COVID-19 from Wuhan, China. A month later, she said the "the tsunami has yet to come."
She has been charged with "endangering the lives of others."
The spotlight on Buzyn's conduct is part of a wider probe into whether the French government was sufficiently prepared to face a pandemic and whether policy changes and U-turns, including on mask-wearing, were a sign of political failings.
During a hearing on Friday morning, the former doctor said she would not "let the action of the government be discredited, or my action as a minister, when we did so much to prepare our country for a global health crisis that is still ongoing."
Buzyn lost her bid for the Paris city hall and was appointed in January to the World Health Organisation (WHO) in Geneva, in charge of monitoring multilateral issues.
She has already told a parliamentary probe that she alerted President Emmanuel Marcon and then-Prime Minister Edouard Philippe to the potential "dangers" of COVID-19 in January.
How could this affect Emmanuel Macron's reelection chances?
The investigation is a major blow for Macron, whose handling of the health crisis will face scrutiny during campaigning for the French presidential election next year.
Macron's centrist party was decimated in regional elections this summer amid widespread criticism of lockdowns and the delayed COVID vaccination rollout.
His government's decision to introduce a health pass has also brought tens of thousands of protesters onto the streets for more than 8 consecutive weeks.
The pass shows that people are fully vaccinated, have recently recovered from COVID-19, or received a recent negative test.
Philippe and current Health Minister Olivier Veran are also being investigated and have seen their offices searched.
What is the Court of Justice of the Republic?
The Court of Justice was created in 1993 and allows the public to file complaints if they believe they are a victim of a crime carried out by a member of the government.
Around 14,500 complaints have been received over the government's handling of the pandemic.
Some critics accuse the court of being too slow, while others see the current probe as an example of the justice system's overreach. Some also believe French voters will get a chance to punish the government in next year's presidential election.
Being put under formal investigation is just a first step. Judges will now decide whether there is sufficient proof of wrongdoing to go to court.
mm/fb (AFP, Reuters)