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article imageWar of words over May Day break-in at Paris hospital

By Hazel WARD and Stuart WILLIAMS (AFP)     May 2, 2019 in World

The French government on Thursday accused radicals of storming a famed Paris hospital during a violent May Day showdown, while protesters insisted they were only seeking refuge from a police crackdown.

Interior Minister Christophe Castaner denounced the incident as an "attack" on an intensive care unit at the Pitie-Salpetriere hospital, in remarks likely to raise further tensions between the government and the "yellow vest" demonstrators.

Supporters of the yellow vests, whose protests have shaken the government of President Emmanuel Macron over the past half year, said the demonstrators were merely seeking refuge from tear gas fired by police.

The hospital incident came during a hugely tense May Day  which saw Paris police clash with hardline...
The hospital incident came during a hugely tense May Day, which saw Paris police clash with hardline protesters
CHRISTOPHE SIMON, AFP

Top officials at the Paris hospital, where Diana, Princess of Wales died in 1997 after a car crash, said protesters had broken into the hospital grounds then tried to enter an intensive care unit.

But mobile phone footage circulating on Facebook, apparently shot at the scene by one of the nurses on duty, appeared to give credence to the idea they were fleeing.

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, which ended at Place d'Italie near the hospital.

Prosecutors said Thursday evening that all 32 people held over the break-in had been released, adding that investigations continue.

- Caught on camera -

Hospital director Marie-Anne Ruder told France Inter radio that a gate had been forced open and dozens of people had entered the grounds, some wearing the trademark high-visibility yellow vests and others with their faces covered.

She called the police because of their "violent and threatening behaviour".

French Health Minister Agnes Buzyn walks up the metal staircase leading to an intensive care unit at...
French Health Minister Agnes Buzyn walks up the metal staircase leading to an intensive care unit at Pitie-Salpetriere hospital where the demonstrators tried to get in
KENZO TRIBOUILLARD, AFP

"Several dozen people tried to force the door into the intensive care unit," she told RTL radio, saying the police arrived 10 minutes later.

In the Facebook footage, however, a group of nurses standing on a metal staircase outside the intensive care unit appear to be filming those milling around below, when suddenly a group of people starts running from the direction of the gate.

As the frontrunners head for the staircase, the nurses rush inside, pulling the glass door shut just before the first protesters get there. "No, we can't let you in, this is the intensive care unit," they repeatedly say as some try to pull open the door.

After less than two minutes, the police arrive and the protesters peacefully file back down the stairs.

"There was no violence, at least towards us," said nurse Jerome Lecrecq, adding that the protesters seemed more in "a state of panic".

- 'Pseudo attack'? -

Authorities have accused ultra-left radicals known as "black blocs" of jumping on the yell...
Authorities have accused ultra-left radicals known as "black blocs" of jumping on the yellow vest bandwagon
Anne-Christine POUJOULAT, AFP

French Health Minister Agnes Buzyn described the break-in as "unspeakable".

While acknowledging that some people may have been seeking shelter, she alleged on Europe 1 radio that others may have been bent on theft, notably of hi-tech equipment.

But Jean-Luc Melenchon, leader of the ultra-left France Unbowed party, rubbished the interior minister's claims out of hand, accusing Castaner of making up a "pseudo attack" on the hospital.

"Truth is the first victim of Macron's sidekicks," he wrote on Twitter.

The protests erupted in November over social inequality with a show of anger against the policies of...
The protests erupted in November over social inequality with a show of anger against the policies of President Emmanuel Macron
Alain JOCARD, AFP

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 rallies have often spilt over into violence. But Macron has acknowledged the demands of many demonstrators 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.

Doctors at the hospital's emergency unit battled to save her but she was pronounced dead hours later.

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