French police have searched the homes of the country's health minister, former prime minister and other top officials in an investigation into the government's response to the global coronavirus pandemic.
The dawn searches, confirmed by the Health Ministry, come as France is fighting against a resurgent epidemic that has now filled a third of the country's intensive care units with COVID-19 patients and is again putting Europe to the test. President Emmanuel Macron announced curfews on around 20 million people in the Paris region and eight other French metropolitan areas starting Friday night to try to slow the tide.
The investigation threatens to rekindle public frustration with a government that's been accused of lying to the public about mask stocks, underestimating testing needs and overestimating France's ability to vanquish the pandemic - not once, but twice.
About 1,000 protesting nurses, doctors and other public hospital staff marched through Paris on Thursday to demand more investment, staff and higher salaries after years of cost cuts.
The searches "will make the people's mistrust grow," said Dr. Ludovic Toro, who was among the doctors, COVID-19 patients, prison personnel, police officers and others who filed more than 90 legal complaints in the spring over the government's management of the pandemic.
A special French court for prosecuting government ministers ordered an investigation as a result of their complaints.
Among those whose homes were searched Thursday include Health Minister Olivier Veran, his predecessor Agnes Buzyn, former Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, the current head of the country's national health service Jerome Salomon, and Sibeth Ndiaye, a former government spokeswoman. Veran's office was searched as well.
Dr. Toro still has no high-protection masks for his practice, nine months after the first virus case was confirmed in France. And he says he is seeing more patients with COVID-19 symptoms now than he did in the spring.
He and other doctors accuse the government of lying to the public earlier in the year, when top officials told the public masks weren't necessary even as they struggled to secure enough supplies for French hospitals amid surging global demand.
"They should have said that there were no masks. That was the real problem," he said. "They refused to tell the truth."
The government has said that its early guidance on not wearing masks was based on limited understanding of the new coronavirus at the time.
Asked about Thursday's searches, current Prime Minister Jean Castex wouldn't comment on the investigation but said he had "total" confidence in the health minister to do his job.
The government announced it will deploy 12,000 police to enforce the new curfew, and will spend another 1 billion euros to help businesses hit hardest by the latest virus restrictions.
"Our compatriots thought this health crisis was behind us," Castex said. "But we can't live normally again as long as the virus is here."
France is registering nearly 180 virus cases per 100,000 people every week. It has reported one of the world's highest virus-related death tolls, at more than 33,000 lives lost.