France probes May Day protesters' 'break in' at Paris hospital

The French government on Thursday accused radicals of storming a famed Paris hospital during a fiery May Day rally, an incident that risks further raising tensions between authorities and a nationwide protest movement.

Kenzo Tribouillard, AFP | Doctors at the Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital in Paris say protesters tried to enter an intensive care unit during May Day protests.

Doctors at the Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital said protesters had forced their way into the hospital and even tried to enter an intensive care unit, though accounts differed as to why the break-in occurred and whether violence was used.

The incursion drew a sharp response, with Prime Minister Édouard 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.

Amateur footage of unarmed protesters fleeing the tear gas appeared to back their claims, though officials said investigators were examining CCTV footage to determine what happened inside the sprawling hospital complex.

One video posted on Twitter showed protesters going up a fire escape that leads to the hospital's intensive care unit as they were confronted by oncoming riot police.

Another video, shot from inside the intensive care unit, appeared to contradict the authorities' initial claims of a violent attempt by masked protesters to break into the intensive care unit.

"They got scared, they just got scared," says one hospital worker in the video, referring to the protesters. "They didn't know [where they were], they were just looking for a way out," adds another.

‘Be careful, there are patients in here!’

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!"

Officials have played down initial suggestions that protesters may have been after a riot police officer who was being treated in the hospital for a head injury.

'Pseudo attack'

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 visited visit 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.

Later in the day, hospital officials told AFP that they had found no link between the May Day protests and two cases of theft and vandalism reported at the Pitié-Salpêtrière.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the far-left France Unbowed party, has accused the government 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.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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