By Elizabeth Pineau
PARIS (Reuters) - Police raided the homes and offices of France's health minister, its public health director and former prime minister on Thursday as a judicial investigation into the government's response to the coronavirus crisis deepened.
The early morning searches stunned many in France, which has one of the highest COVID death tolls in Western Europe, and prompted Prime Minister Jean Castex to pay tribute to Health Minister Olivier Veran's courage and determination.
"I have full confidence in Mr. Veran," Castex told a press conference, held after France announced coronavirus curfews for Paris and eight other big cities. "I attest before you, he leads from the front."
Although the prime minister and his cabinet do not enjoy legal immunity, unlike the president, police raids on the homes of sitting ministers are uncommon in France.
The probe was launched in July by France's Court of Justice, established in 1993 to handle cases of alleged ministerial misconduct in the wake of the country's contaminated blood scandal of the 1980s and 1990s.
The court received some 90 complaints lodged by doctors, nursing homes and local authorities over the government's handling of the pandemic. The complaints included accusations of involuntary homicide and endangering life.
All but nine were dismissed by the prosecutor. The remainder were wrapped into a single probe which aims to establish whether those in charge at the outset of the outbreak showed a "lack of will to fight a disaster".
Investigations are also underway in Italy, where Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte was quizzed by prosecutors in June about his handling of the crisis. In Spain, there are investigations against the central, regional and municipal authorities.
The raids took place just hours after President Emmanuel Macron ordered a night curfew affecting almost a third of the French population, seeking to tackle a surging second wave of coronavirus infections.
A health ministry official said the searches against Veran and his public health director Jerome Salomon were conducted without any impediment.
The raids also targeted former Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, Veran's predecessor Agnes Buzyn, who quit to become Macron's pick for Paris mayor, and former government spokeswoman Sibeth Ndiaye.
"Everything was very courteous and with (the former prime minister's) full co-operation," said a spokeswoman for Philippe, who is now mayor of the port city of Le Havre.
Reuters was not immediately able to contact the other officials caught up in the raids.
Francois Mitterrand established the Court of Justice in the wake of scandal which saw haemophiliacs receive blood transfusions infected with HIV.
Former prime minister Laurent Fabius and two of his ministers faced manslaughter charges after the government allegedly delayed its response, waiting for a French test to be authorised, even through a foreign company had one available.
Fabius and his social affairs minister were acquitted. His health minister was found guilty but received no sentence.
In total the court has handled some ten cases. It has never handed out a prison sentence.
(Reporting by Elizabeth Pineau; Writing by Benoit Van Overstraeten and Richard Lough; Editing by Giles Elgood, Frances Kerry and Alexandra Hudson)