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France's Interior Minister under fire for Paris hospital 'attack' comments

Health minister, Agnès Buzyn, visiting the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital, 2 May 2019.
Health minister, Agnès Buzyn, visiting the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital, 2 May 2019. KENZO TRIBOUILLARD / AFP

France's Interior Minister Christophe Castaner has come under fire after he described an incident involving Yellow Vest protesters at a Paris hospital on May Day as an 'attack', a remark he later said he shouldn't have made. Demonstrators say they were only seeking refuge from a police crackdown.


The French government on Thursday accused radicals of storming the Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital during a violent May Day showdown, while Yellow Vest protesters insisted they were fleeing from tear gas fired by police.

Castaner who initially said the hospital had been under "attack" by Yellow Vest and Black Bloc protesters later backtracked, saying that to avoid "controversy" he should "not have used" the word "attack."

The incident came during a hugely tense May Day which saw police clash with hardline protesters on the sidelines of the annual labour union march.

More than 30 people were arrested over the break-in, according to prosecutors.

Hospital director Marie-Anne Ruder said the gate had been forced open and called the police because of their "violent and threatening behaviour", she told France Inter radio.

Doctors at the hospital confirmed that some protesters had even tried to enter an intensive care unit.

Two sides to the story

However, accounts differed as to why the break-in occurred and whether violence was used.

Mobile phone footage circulating on Facebook on Thursday, apparently shot at the scene by one of the nurses on duty, appeared to give credence to the idea the protesters were fleeing.

Nurse Jerome Lecrecq told Liberation newspaper that the protesters seemed in "a state of panic".

Another nurse in the hospital at the time told BFM TV that they (the staff) "did not feel especially attacked. There were even some people trying to calm things down. They understood that we couldn't let them inside the hospital."

Totally irresponsible

The break-in drew a sharp response, with Prime Minister Edouard Philippe denouncing it as "totally irresponsible".

Castaner then tweeted that it was an "attack" on the hospital. In his tweet, he said that the medical staff there had been assaulted and a police officer had been injured protecting the hospital.

French Health Minister Agnes Buzyn described the break-in as "unspeakable".

While acknowledging that some people may have been seeking shelter, she alleged on Europe 1 radio that others may have been bent on theft, notably of hi-tech equipment.

It was later noted by staff that the theft of equipment and damage to property may have happened earlier and it was difficult to establish who was at fault and what time these incidents may have occured.

Challenged by the new information coming to light, Castaner initially chose to stick with his version, using the word 'attack" again, according to France Info.

But after criticism intensified, he backtracked saying that, to avoid "controversy" he should "not have used it."

A liar, incompetant

Jean-Luc Melenchon, leader of the ultra-left France Unbowed party immediately accused Castaner of making up a "pseudo attack" on the hospital.

"Truth is the first victim of Macron's sidekicks," he wrote on Twitter.

"Be careful. In a few hours, we'll discover that the so-called attack on the Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital was an attempt to manipulate the system" he said.

Bruno Retailleau, president of Les Republicains in the Senate called Castaner "a liar, and on top of that, he's incompetent."

An investigation is now underway to shine light on what happened.

The yellow vest protests erupted in November over social inequality with a show of anger against the policies of President Emmanuel Macron, whom opponents accuse of not doing enough for the poor.

The weekly rallies have often spilt over into violence. But Macron has acknowledged the demands of many demonstrators are valid, and last month announced tax cuts and other measures to show he was listening.


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