U-turn on tainted blood affair

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The Independent Online
SOCIALIST members of the French National Assembly yesterday blocked moves to try two former ministers for the distribution of HIV-contaminated blood products, as the party leader asked to be allowed to stand trial.

Just three months before parliamentary elections in which the Socialists already expected a rout, the move was likely only to confirm their low standing among voters who have been crying out for a full investigation of the blood case.

A commentary in Le Monde summed up the Socialists' position under the one-word headline 'Disasters'. An opinion poll in the popular Le Parisien newspaper identified the contaminated blood affair as the principal subject of concern for the French in 1992.

The Socialist deputies suddenly went back on a decision to support the convocation of the High Court, the only body allowed to try politicians for offences committed in ministerial office. It was due to open proceedings against Georgina Dufoix and Edmond Herve, respectively social affairs minister and health minister in the Socialist government in 1985 when the blood products were distributed to haemophiliacs.

The about-turn meant there was no majority in the assembly to call the court despite widespread support for politicians to answer for their role in a case which has already brought prison sentences for two senior blood transfusion service doctors.

For weeks now, Socialist politicians have been stressing the need for the truth to be told about the government's role in allowing the conscious distribution of unheated blood concentrates to haemophiliacs although safe alternatives were available. Mrs Dufoix and Laurent Fabius, the party First Secretary who was prime minister at the time, both said they were willing to face trial to clear up the issue.

At a hastily called news conference yesterday, Mr Fabius said he would ask parliament to indict him so that he could clear his name. 'So that no possible ambiguity remains . . . I will myself vote for the indictment calling on the High Court to deal with my case since that is today the price of truth and honour,' he said.

He asked for a special meeting of the National Assembly on Sunday to vote the indictment before parliament recesses.

Mr Fabius, close to tears, said the indictment was 'odious' because it presumed he was guilty when even his political adversaries acknowledged he was innocent. Many Socialist deputies had privately accused their leader of lacking solidarity with Ms Dufoix and Mr Herve by apparently being prepared to allow them to stand trial without him.

While Mr Fabius has expressed doubts about the impartiality of what he said was a political court, President Francois Mitterrand said last month that it should be convened since it was the only body empowered to deal with ministerial responsibility. Last week, the Senate ruled that Mr Fabius had no case to answer.

The Socialist group's decision not to vote with the opposition to call the court is the latest of a series of open rifts between the President and the party which was his power base. Paradoxically, this could make the head of state's task easier as he prepares to serve out the last two years of his second seven-year presidential term after the March parliamentary vote, with a conservative government handling the day-to-day affairs of the nation.

The Socialist deputies, after an internal party debate in which some tried to persuade Mr Fabius to seek prosecution despite the conservative-dominated Senate's vote, changed their mind after Mr Herve made an emotional address in which he said he would be 'alone with my conscience' before the High Court. In evidence at the doctors' trial last summer, Mr Herve said he had known of the potential dangers for nearly four months before heated products became compulsory.

The Socialist decision not to support the convocation of the High Court seems all the more futile since there was no chance of the court, composed only of parliamentarians, actually meeting during the current legislature.

The March elections and the usual lengthy pre-trial investigation would have combined to ensure that the former ministers did not appear before the court for months. In addition, the opposition can be expected to re-launch the procedure at the earliest opportunity.

(Photograph omitted)