Magazine article The Spectator

I Retrace That Last Car Ride

Magazine article The Spectator

I Retrace That Last Car Ride

Article excerpt


'STEP on it,' I told the driver as we left the Ritz and moved off into the night. I had just emerged from the dimly lit Ritz bar where a pianist was playing songs like, 'You Must Remember This', Americans were laughing loudly and a French woman d'un certain age was sipping champagne alone. Next door in the restaurant, roast turbot garnished with dried seaweed and seasonal crispy vegetable roots were again on the menu just as they had been when she ate it -- her last meal.

I wanted to retrace the route, roughly one mile. It was midnight, as it was for the Princess. Slowly, we trundled across the quaint cobbles of the Place Vendome, where the front of the Ritz grandly stands, across into the Rue Castiglione, and right into the Rue du Rivoli. The traffic was thick as we passed W.H. Smith's Paris shop and entered the vastness of the Place de la Concorde next to the Seine. To our left, on the other side of the river, was the Eiffel Tower -- enormous and lit up like a sparkler -- and to our right, the approach down the Champs Elysees, mapped out with lights either side of the road like a runway, and the Arc de Triomphe. These, I thought, were the last things she saw.

'What's the fastest you've ever driven?' I asked the driver. '100 mph,' he said, 'but only on the autoroute.' We were doing no more than 30. It was the traffic.

On the far side of the Place de la Concorde is the road which runs along the Seine and leads to the underpass next to the Pont de l'Alma -- the place where madness and drink took control and Henri Paul, the 41-year-old driver of the car, who was three times over the French drink-drive limit, decided to put his foot down.

Until then, the paparazzi would have been able to keep up. But the road off the Place is a bit like the Embankment in London -- though much narrower. It was here that M. Paul -- who is said to have taunted the paparazzi at the hotel, saying, 'You can't catch me, don't bother trying,' in a display of machismo -- decided that the moment had come to prove his point. According to some reports, the Mercedes 280 was going at 120 mph when it crashed into one of thepillars -- the 13th -- that run down the centre of the dual carriage underpass. Whatever the truth, the pictures of the wreck indicate its speed was grotesque.

Yet however drunk, however arrogant, it is difficult to believe that M. Paul, the deputy head of security at the Ritz and a former Fleet Air Arm pilot, would have driven so fast unless told to -- presumably by Dodi Fayed. It is easy to imagine Dodi, unused to such obsessive press interest, losing his cool, panicking and showing off all at the same time. One of the rumours doing the rounds in Paris is that the police found drugs in the car. Was Dodi too -- not just the driver -- out of his head?

We drove on. 'Faster,' I said to the driver. But it was no use. Too much traffic. The maximum we managed was a paltry 50 mph as we went through one underpass, Cours de la Reine, and so came to the next one, Pont de l'Alma. The trip had taken us about ten minutes. It would have taken the Mercedes five. At the spot where the crash occurred half a dozen bouquets lay about the base of the pillar, looking odd amidst the concrete. There were many more bouquets above the underpass at the base of a sculpture, 'La Flamme de la Liberte', which looks like something by Picasso -- and messages. 'Please forgive us. We loved you but we hadn't enough respect for you,' said one in English.

Perhaps it is a sense of guilt, I thought, that is driving much of the grief. …

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