Retracing Diana's final footsteps
Early on the afternoon of August 30, 1997, beneath a cobalt-blue sky, a private jet swooped in to land at Le Bourget airport, 12 kilometres north-east of Paris.
On board, tense though tanned, were Diana, Princess of Wales and her recently acquired beau Dodi Fayed, son of Harrods millionaire Mohammad Al Fayed. It was an unscheduled stop-over: their diversion to Paris had been hastily pencilled in on the pair's original timetable after the paparazzi had settled in outside the couple's Sardinian holiday hideaway the day before, forcing them to flee unexpectedly.
It was to be the Princess and Dodi's final flight together. Twenty-one hours later, at 12.23am local time on August 31, the Princess lay fatally injured in the back seat of a mangled Mercedes in the city's Pont d'Alma tunnel. Beside her lay Dodi's body. He had been killed instantly when the car glanced off the tunnel's 13th pillar and smashed side-on into its concrete wall. The battle to save the Princess was to last a few hours longer before she was pronounced dead at the Pitie Salpetriere hospital just before 4am.
Tomorrow morning, 10 years and one month after her death, yet another private jet will glide on to the runway of Le Bourget. Among those on board will be the 11 inquest jurors whose job it is to cut through the swathe of conspiracy theories, lurid allegations and claims and counter-claims that have triggered intrigue during the decade since Diana and Dodi's deaths.
Their task is not to allocate blame but to determine the circumstances of their deaths. To decide if they died in a tragic traffic accident caused by their driver's alcohol consumption and his furious speed, as previous inquiries have concluded - or, as Mohammad Al Fayed somewhat fantastically claims, as the result of an MI6 plot hatched by the Duke of Edinburgh, to prevent their marriage and the possibility of the future King William having a Muslim stepfather.
Over the next six months, their role will uncover the most incisive and intimate insight yet into the unresolved riddle surrounding the death of Britain's most intriguing royal.
When the jurors convene at the Paris Ritz in the Place Vendome at midday tomorrow it will be amid unprecedented security. Michele Alliot-Marie, the French interior minister, has assigned armed officers of the RAID anti-terrorist squad, 200 CRS riot police and undercover agents from the domestic intelligence agency DST to shadow the six men and five women as they retrace Diana's final hours. All the sites visited will be scanned beforehand by sniffer dogs trained to detect explosives.
Much, Alliot-Marie knows, is at stake. Naturally, there is a security risk for the English entourage. But she has a more pressing concern on her mind: that of her country's reputation. " France wants to highlight that its conduct throughout the country's own inquiry has been exemplary," she says. "As far as the Diana investigation is concerned, there can be no mistakes. All of us are convinced we got it right and have nothing to hide."
In that fear for her country's good name, she is far from alone. Many among those closely involved in this inquiry into Diana's death are only too aware that they, like the French, risk emerging after the inquest's resolution with their reputations in tatters, their integrity torn asunder.
While the inquest, it is hoped, will put paid finally to the enigma of Diana's death there are, among the living, those whose reputations will come under intense scrutiny during its proceedings. Many with much to lose.
During the first three days of the inquest, presided over by Lord Justice Scott Baker in court 73 of the Royal Courts of Justice, we have already been deluged with hitherto unknown CCTV footage and never before revealed facts. We have witnessed the playful and affectionate interaction between Diana and Dodi as they stood in a grubby stairwell, just outside the service lift, waiting to leave the rear exit of the Paris Ritz. We have seen the final photograph, taken from a motorbike ahead of their car, as it approached the d'Alma tunnel.
Ultimately, however, it is the reputation of Diana, Princess of Wales that may flounder as a result of the inquest, as more and more intimate details of her love life, her paranoid fantasies and her tangled emotional life come to light.
It is perhaps significant that, for all the public adulation that poured out in the aftermath of her death, only nine members of the public sat in the public gallery to watch the opening week of the inquest into her death.
Outside, a specially erected marquee to accommodate the overflow, lay eerily silent and empty: a sad epitaph to the woman once worshipped as the "people's princess". ( Gulf )