May 1st at Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris: The Lies of the French Government

During an evening and a morning, several members of the government and the management of AP-HP assured that the Parisian hospital had been “attacked” by violent demonstrators. Nothing happened: a few dozen people took refuge at the foot of the buildings of the hospital to escape the tear gas and the police charges, with the authorisation of its director. No protester was threatening and nobody degraded the premises. On the other hand, some were beaten by police officers.

What happened in the Paris Pitié-SalpêtrièreHospital on Wednesday, May 1st? In fact, nothing. Or very little: some protesters entered the compound of the establishment after breaking the lock that kept the gate mesh closed. After nearly 24 hours of agitation fuelled by the government and leaders of public hospitals in the Paris region (AP-HP), the accusations made against demonstrators who allegedly “attacked” the hospital on the margins of the demonstration that crumbled in Thursday afternoon.

The numerous testimonies collected by Mediapart and several other media outlets, as well as videos and an official response from the “AP-HP”, have completely deflated the allegations. Facts that have yet resulted in 32 people being arrested for “intruding and degrading the inside of a hospital”, according to the police headquarters, and being placed in custody for “participating in a group in order to commit degradations or violence,” according to the Paris prosecutor. No protester was prosecuted in the end.

And for good reason: the few tens of people present in the enclosure of the hospital did not enter any building, they did not degrade or steal anything. They first tried to avoid the very intense clouds of tear gas that drowned the demonstration, a few meters away, or a police charge. They then tried to escape the police officers, many of whom were riding on motorcycles, who had trapped them at the foot of the hospital buildings. This is where some protesters tried to enter what turned out to be the surgical resuscitation service at around 4:30 pm. But in front of the protests of the caregivers, they quickly gave up, without showing any aggressiveness. Some of them were later beaten by police officers.

Mediapart spoke with Gaël, a 30-year-old computer scientist, arrested during this episode and released 23 hours later, after a night in a cell in the courthouse on Île de la Cité, without any charge being pressed against him. “When I testified at 4 am, the policemen were blasé and told me that they had nothing against me or about 30 others in custody,” he said. “I spent almost a day in custody for nothing. When I see how this has been used by politicians or the media, I find it very shocking.”

The very strange sequence that has just ended began Wednesday in the late afternoon, shortly after the end of the demonstration. “France Inter” relayed for the first time the testimony of an intern of the Pitié that relates to the attempted intrusion into the resuscitation service where he was present. Very quickly, Martin Hirsch, the general director of the “AP-HP”, displayed on Twitter his “full support to the teams of Pitié-Salpêtrière, who faced a gang of demonstrators/breakers in an attempt to violently intrude.” He announced that a complaint will be filed.

In the night, he then asserts on BFMTV that “absolutely edifying” video surveillance images exist and that they will be transmitted to the investigators. Then, in an email sent at 11:28 pm to all the agents of the “APH-HP”, he denounces “the ‘demonstrators’ who […] attempted to forcibly intrude into the surgical resuscitation service”, and salutes the care teams and their “coolness that commands respect”. “We cannot imagine what could have happened without their remarkable courage,” he said.

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The next morning on France Info he persisted: “It could have turned into a tragedy, the consequences of which I do not dare to imagine,” he said, denouncing “very serious excesses” and an “unprecedented situation”, and estimating that the establishment walked “on the edge of a catastrophe”. In the morning and at the same microphone, Marie-Anne Ruder, director of “Pitié-Salpêtrière”, declared that “it is extremely shocking that a public hospital [can] be a target for breakers.”

These denunciations were just as quickly echoed by the government. On Wednesday at 9 pm, after a visit to the scene, the Minister of the Interior Christophe Castaner tweeted that at Pitié, “we have an attack on a hospital” and “we have an attack on its medical staff”. He even assures that “our law enforcement intervened to save the resuscitation service”. In the wake, Secretary of State Agnès Pannier-Runacher denounces the fact that “about 50 protesters violently broke into the resuscitation service”. Her colleague at the Ministry of Ecological Transition also deplored an “attempted violent intrusion into a hospital”, which “has nothing to do with demonstrating”.

The next morning it was the health minister Agnès Buzyn who spoke on “Europe 1” about an “unspeakable” intrusion. She saluted “the hospital staff [who] was very brave and had the good habit of protecting the patients first and foremost”. To end the sequence of government indignation, Prime Minister Édouard Philippe insisted that “wanting to enter a hospital in this way is not excusable”. Other politicians were also indignant, like the Republican Philippe Juvin, a doctor himself, who shouted his head off against “breakers who invaded the resuscitation service”.

A few hours later, a video will show all these dramatised at will statements for what they are: PR communication, very far from the reality of events. In the early afternoon of Thursday, Nejeh Ben Farhat, a member of the hospital service, published on his Facebook page six minutes of video retracing the entire scene, seen from the inside, behind the famous door that the protesters wanted to cross. The man is a declared Yellow Vest, and has already appeared as such on the set of RT, a channel funded by the Russian government. Here’s an excerpt from his video:

In the video we clearly see the protesters running to escape the arriving police and climb the small staircase leading to the platform overlooking the door of the service, which obviously does not close. The caregivers cling to the door so that the protesters cannot open it and shout for them not to enter. The demonstrators do not insist, then the caregivers open the passage themselves, to go talk with them, when a police officer arrives on the scene. An elderly man then tries to sneak in, but is repulsed. End of the sequence.

Already in the morning, two health workers had assured a group of journalists in a hurry to make them say that they had very badly experienced the scene they had never felt threatened. Gwenaëlle Bellocq assured that they “didn’t feel any more assaulted than that” and “did not feel any more at risk than that”. And one of her colleagues recalled that the episode didn’t last longer than “two or three minutes”, and that there was “no real trauma” for the team, nor were there any “excesses”.

This carer also assured that nothing had been stolen in the hospital, unlike a rumour launched that morning on BFMTV by one of the doctors present in the service. “In other departments of the hospital, there were other abuses,” said this doctor. “In the same building, two hours later, the loss of all vandalised equipment in the digestive surgery department’s computer department was deplored”. On “Europe 1”, Agnès Buzyn then said: “A number of abuses were reported to me, including computer equipment that would have been stolen.” There was nothing like this, as was acknowledged by AP-HP’s communications department to Mediapart.

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Two separate episodes took place: on the night of Tuesday to Wednesday, following a break-in at the cardiology institute, the hospital noted “significant damage to walls and furniture”. Moreover, “in the course of yesterday afternoon, a video projector located in the staff room of the department of digestive surgery was torn away from its base and stolen”. But, said AP-HP, “at this stage no link can be made between these two findings and the intrusion of demonstrators”. A full-service hospital nurse told Mediapart: “The video projector was in a locked room, and this is the third time this year it has been stolen.”

For this nurse, “listening to an account that was forumalted at a distance from these events was very surprising: for my colleagues and me, it was clear from the start that things didn’t happened this way at all!”. The episode of Thursday afternoon actually started at around 16:00 on boulevard de l’Hôpital, which runs along part of the “Pitié-Salpêtrière”. As we have said, the atmosphere was very tense between the police and some demonstrators.

A tear gas cloud covered the demonstration and several police charges ensued. Some protesters then shook the hospital gate, which adjoins the entrance to the university restaurant, and is not marked as an entrance to the hospital. The gates opened, several dozen people rushed down the long paved road that connects several buildings of the establishment. Union syndicalist Stephane Borras spoke about this episode on Thursday morning on his blog hosted by Mediapart, and our journalist François Bonnet, who was at the scene, confirmed this. Wladimir Garcin-Berson, journalist at Figaro, told an identical story on Twitter.

“It was chaos, it was clearly for everyone to take shelter from the gas and avoid police charges. Nobody had in mind to go break in the hospital, and some of us were not even sure to be inside the Pitié,” said Julien to Mediapart. For his part, Louis emphasises that, like him, “a lot of people present, of all ages, had never demonstrated in these conditions” and that many “simply panicked and wanted to flee”. “We were fleeing the teargas without really seeing or understanding where we were going. These moments were chaotic, the total confusion prevailed,” confirmed a third demonstrator who entrusted his testimony with Mediapart.

Caregivers were present at the foot of buildings, and distributed saline to soothe the eyes affected by tear gas. “Many of my colleagues even went to find people on the boulevard who were very heavily hit by teargas,” said the nurse. They had to take them to the emergency room, where the exit is very near. About thirty protesters and several police officers were admitted at that time.

Julien, who entered when the gates were already open, pointed out a fact that had gone unnoticed until then: “The director of the hospital Marie-Anne Ruder came to meet us and allowed us to stay within the walls of his establishment,” he categorically ensured. “She said they would leave the gate open until things calm down on the boulevard. Me and two other Yellow Vests thanked her. The calm lasted about half an hour”. The director’s version of events is different. To “France Info” she explained that she “tried to talk to them, to let them know that it was a hospital and that we could not enter into it that way” and that “a discussion was not possible, with some aggressiveness and verbal abuse on the part of some of the people who were there.”

The attempt to enter the hospital building came shortly before 4:30 pm, when many police officers burst into the compound to evacuate protesters. Some were on foot, others directly on motorbikes, and their behaviour was aggressive, as is seen in several videos. This one shows two police officers wearing motorcycle helmets hitting a person on the ground. Another one, relayed by the journalist David Dufresne, shows the extremely heavy atmosphere that prevailed then.

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“Behind our backs, we were charged by the police on foot, and we tried to cross the hospital grounds to go out to a parallel street, but bikers then drove to us,” explained Mehdi to Mediapart. He recounts the “panic” that seized the protesters, who were amused everywhere and trying to hide. He followed the movement and found himself at the foot of the stairs overlooking the famous door. Seeing that the exit was closed, he resigned himself to face the police. And he said he was then insulted and beaten on many occasions. According to his account, a police officer, after giving him three blows, sent him to his colleagues, saying, “punish him”. A “We’re going to flatten you” was addressed to him in the middle of the blows. He said he has many bruises on his body, which he took photos of.

Gaël, a young man taken into custody, was with his friend Mehdi. He too faced the police but was not hit. “It was a policeman on foot who took charge of me at the foot of the stairs. He told me that he was going to evacuate me and take me back to the boulevard, very calmly,” he describes. “But a group of police on motorbikes sprang up, shouting and telling everyone to get down, throwing some people to the ground. The person accompanying me did not seem to agree, but I was finally arrested and taken by bus to the cell. I learned by talking to the police before being questioned that I was accused of ‘damage caused by an organised group’, but I finally was released without any legal action.”

Questioned on Thursday in the afternoon on this topic in the Senate, Agnès Buzyn gave the new official line of the government, with caution: “The investigation will clarify the responsibilities, the will to commit aggression or not. I will not go further because the investigation is ongoing.” It’s difficult in any case not to find in this episode a strong echo of what happened in June 2016 with the Necker Hospital, in the midst of the protest movement against the labour law. Three years ago, a series of windows of the hospital were broken during a demonstration. The Prime Minister Manuel Valls described a “devastated” hospital, while most of the damage was caused by projectiles launched by protesters at the police station, just in front of the hospital.

Dan Israel, Mediapart

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