The French government on Thursday accused radicals of storming a famed Paris hospital during a fiery May Day, an incident that risks further raising tensions between authorities and a nationwide protest movement.
Doctors at the Pitie-Salpetriere hospital — where Diana, Princess of Wales died in 1997 after a car crash in Paris — also said protesters had forced their way into the hospital and even tried to enter an intensive care unit.
The break-in drew a sharp response, with Prime Minister Edouard Philippe denouncing it as “totally irresponsible” and Interior Minister Christophe Castaner describing it as an “attack” on an intensive care unit.
But supporters of the “yellow vest” movement, whose protests have shaken the government of President Emmanuel Macron over the past half year, insisted the demonstrators were merely seeking refuge from tear gas fired by police.
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.
The hospital is close to the Place d’Italie where the march ended, with more than 30 people arrested over the break-in, prosecutors said.
Hospital director Marie-Anne Ruder said the gate had been forced open and she saw dozens of people going inside, some wearing the protesters’ trademark high-visibility yellow vests and others with their faces covered.
She called the police because of their “violent and threatening behaviour”, she told France Inter radio.
“Several dozen people tried to force the door into the intensive care unit,” she told RTL in a separate interview, saying the security forces had turned up 10 minutes later to remove the intruders.
Paris hospitals director general Martin Hirsch, who has filed a complaint, said CCTV footage showed a number of intruders trying to get in as a group of nurses struggled to hold the door shut, shouting: “Be careful, there are patients in here!”
At the time of the break-in, a riot police officer was being treated there for a head injury, but Hirsch said it was not clear what motivated the “inexplicable intrusion”.
“I don’t know if they were looking for a particular injured person. I don’t know if it was an invasion or whether they were fleeing something,” he said, indicating there was “no damage”.
– First time at a hospital –
French Health Minister Agnes Buzyn described the break-in as “unspeakable”.
“This is the first time there has been an act of violence at a hospital,” she told Europe 1 radio. “I think that all French people, like me, are extremely shocked.”
Buzyn, who was to visit the hospital Thursday to thank staff for their conduct, said the incident exposed a “level of violence and behaviour which was shameful”.
While acknowledging some people may have entered the hospital to seek shelter, she suggested others might have been bent on theft, notably of hi-tech equipment.
The situation would be clearer after those in detention had been questioned, she said.
By Thursday morning, a total of 191 people were still in custody over the Paris unrest, 11 of them minors, prosecutors said.
– ‘Pseudo attack’ –
The yellow vest protests erupted in November over social inequality with a show of anger against the policies of Macron, whom opponents accuse of not doing enough for the poor.
The weekly protests have often split over into violence. But Macron has acknowledged the demands of many protesters are valid, and last month announced tax cuts and other measures to show he was listening.
At the same time, the authorities have accused some protesters of displays of anti-Semitism and homophobia, though demonstrators say this is a tactic aimed at discrediting the movement.
Jean-Luc Melenchon, leader of the ultra-left France Unbowed party, accused Castaner of making up what he described as a “pseudo attack” on the hospital.
“Truth is the first victim of Macron’s sidekicks,” he wrote on Twitter.
Princess Diana was brought to La Pitie-Salpetriere in the early hours of August 31, 1997, with massive chest injuries and haemorrhaging after a car crash in Paris.
Doctors at the hospital’s emergency unit battled to save her but she was pronounced dead hours later.