Two former associates of president Emmanuel Macron are facing serious problems with French justice, only seven months before Macron is up for re-election.
The mise en examen, or placing under formal investigation, of Macron’s former health minister Agnès Buzyn in connection with her handling of the early stages of the Covid-19 crisis, and the trial of Macron’s former bodyguard Alexandre Benalla for beating up protesters, are a source of deep embarrassment to the Élysée.
Proceedings similar to those against Buzyn could soon be extended to other high-ranking officials, including former prime minister Édouard Philippe, who announced his support for Macron’s re-election at the weekend, and the current health minister, Olivier Véran.
The Cour de Justice de la République, the only body authorised to try cabinet ministers for offences committed while in office, and the Paris tribunal have received 69,000 lawsuits filed by French citizens in connection with the pandemic. They scheduled a hearing for Buzyn after the Cour de Justice winnowed down the lawsuits – many of which were filed on identical ready-made forms – to 16 deemed worthy of consideration.
The lawsuits blame the government for the lack of equipment for healthcare workers and the U-turn on the necessity of wearing face masks.
Benalla caused the first big scandal of the Macron administration in the summer of 2018 when he was accused of impersonating a policeman and beating up five protesters on May 1st. His trial opened in Paris on Monday and is scheduled to continue until October 1st. If convicted, he could be sentenced to five years in prison and fined €375,000. He is under investigation in three other cases involving allegations of corruption, the destruction of evidence and false testimony.
Buzyn, a medical doctor, resigned as health minister in February 2020 to stand for mayor of Paris, an election she lost. Before her resignation, she said there was a “very low risk” of mass propagation of Covid-19. Much of the anger directed at her is the result of her inconsistency.
In an interview with Le Monde four months later, Buzyn said she wept when she left office “because I knew the tsunami was before us”. She said she was filled with remorse over the government’s policies. “We should have shut everything down. It was a masquerade.”
Buzyn is now an official at the World Health Organisation. She was questioned before judges for six hours on Friday about her handling of the beginning of the pandemic. After three hours of deliberations, magistrates placed her under formal investigation – just one step short of charging her – for allegedly “endangering the lives of others” by failing to adequately foresee or prepare for the health crisis. The announcement, on the evening of September 10th, had the effect of a political bombshell.
Balance of power
The case against Buzyn poses serious questions about the balance of power between the executive and the judiciary. If tried and convicted under article 223-1 of the penal code for endangering the lives of French citizens, she could in theory be imprisoned for one year and fined €15,000.
Most of the French political class have denounced the move against Buzyn as evidence of the politicisation of the French judiciary. The case creates “a risk that weighs on the very essence of politics: the taking of decisions”, Macron said.
Alexis Corbière, a deputy from the far-left party France Unbowed, accused Macron of using Buzyn as a “fuse” and a “scapegoat” to divert attention from his own responsibility in the crisis.
“If one no longer has the right to make mistakes during a crisis, we will have no more crisis managers,” warned Roland Lescure, a spokesman for Macron’s party, La République en Marche (LREM). “While this was going on in France, Donald Trump was telling people to drink bleach, and he wasn’t punished.”
Benalla and Vincent Crase, an employee of LREM, accompanied riot police to May Day protest marches in 2018, because they wanted to observe the “black bloc” anarchists who frequently clash with police.
Benalla wore a police helmet with a plexiglass visor and an armband falsely identifying him as a policeman. Aware that he had been filmed, he informed Alexis Kohler, the secretary general of the Élysée, that evening that “taken out of context, the scene could appear violent”. He was put on two weeks’ leave.
Benalla was sacked on July 19th, 2018, after Le Monde revealed his identity in the footage. He is also charged with using a diplomatic passport – which he had promised to return when he was sacked – for 23 subsequent foreign business trips.