Diana: the truth, but not the end

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THE LONGEST and most expensive car accident investigation in history is over. In truth, it has been over for some time. In a wider sense, it will never be finished. Like the events in Dallas on 22 November 1963, the far more straightforward events in Paris just after midnight on Sunday, 31 August 1997 will not be allowed to rest in peace.

The appeals and the lawsuits are about to begin. They will occupy three or four more years. Whole libraries have doubtless still to be written on the crash at the 13th pillar of the westbound underpass at the Place de l'Alma, two years ago this week.

The judicial investigation of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, will end in the next two days. It has been complete, in its broad outlines, for 18 months or more. No significant new facts have come to light since December 1997.

Judge Herve Stephan, the man who led the inquiry, will say tomorrow or on Tuesday whether he believes that any of the 10 paparazzi placed under investigation should be sent for trial. The best guess is that, like the Paris public prosecutor, he will abandon the potential charges of manslaughter and failure to assist people in danger against the nine photographers and a motorcycle despatch rider who were pursuing Diana's party.

Formally speaking, the interest of the French state and judicial system in the crash which killed Diana, her companion, Dodi Fayed, and their driver, Henri Paul, will be at an end. A London inquest, opened and adjourned two years ago, can then be completed. It is difficult to imagine that it will produce facts or judgments different from those contained in the 3,000 pages of Judge Stephan's report or the 26 pages of the public prosecutor's summary.

The length, cost and apparently banal findings of the investigation have been, and will continue to be, criticised by some people in Britain (they have been criticised in France for being a waste of police time). The findings never will be published officially in full - which is a pity. From the elements which have leaked so far, it seems a thorough, balanced and sane piece of work: something which cannot be said of all the other accounts of how Diana came to meet her death.

The inquiry took so long - double the time Judge Stephan expected - because the accident generated so many bizarre theories. The investigators felt they had to consider them all. They were also held up for six months by a series of appeals and requests by civil parties to the case, the majority from Dodi's father, Mohamed Al Fayed.

There are gaps in the completed investigation. The infamous white Fiat Uno, believed to have been struck a glancing blow by the speeding Mercedes just before it crashed, was never found. The investigators never explained fully why the car took that route, far from the known destination of Diana and her party. It never resolved just how close the pursuing motorcycles were to the armoured Mercedes when the crash happened.

The investigation did, however, include the most minute reconstruction and examination of the wreck of a car ever undertaken in France. All possibility of mechanical failure, deliberately induced or not, was ruled out.

Judge Stephan's report concludes, with dull but impeccable logic, that all the wild talk of assassination is absurd. Diana died in a speeding car, driven by a man who had been drinking heavily and taking anti-depressant drugs. She had not fastened her seat belt.

No one could have known that her party would have been passing that point at that time on that night. Could MI6 or the CIA have had a white Fiat Uno positioned by every intersection in Paris, just in case?

If any one person was responsible for Diana's death (apart from the driver, Henri Paul), it was Dodi Fayed. As the leaked sections of the report point out, it was Dodi who became excessively agitated by the presence of the paparazzi. It was Dodi who insisted that the inebriated and unqualified Mr Paul should drive. Mr Paul chose the route, along the quays, away from Dodi's flat, to allow him to drive at high speed and shake off the pursuing bikes. But why bother? Everyone, including Diana, Dodi and their pursuers, knew there were other photographers waiting outside the flat just off the Champs Elysees.

As the public prosecutor's summary implies, Dodi was playing a macho game of beat-the-press, to impress his new girlfriend. The legal implications of the criticism of Dodi in the report are interesting but confusing, according to one lawyer working on the case. "They could encourage civil actions against the Ritz Hotel, which employed Mr Paul, and was owned by Dodi's family. On the other hand, the criticism is more of Dodi personally than it is of the Ritz. And Dodi is dead."

Mohamed Al Fayed will appeal against the decision not to prosecute. He may try to bring a civil action against one or all of the ex-accused paparazzi. The photographers will sell their stories. Trevor Rees-Jones, the former Fayed bodyguard and sole survivor of the crash, is certain to sue someone, possibly his ex-employer, or the company which leased the Mercedes to the Ritz. Diana's family are said to be considering whether to sue (and, if so, whom). So too is the family of the chauffeur, who was not really a chauffeur, Mr Paul.

All these actions will produce a great deal of mud but little new light. Fatal road accidents in Paris usually have a combination of the following causes: excessive speed, the inebriation of the driver, the failure of passengers to fasten seat belts. They happen most often on the Boulevard Peripherique or on the fast roads along the Seine quays. The most murderous time is late on Saturday night or early Sunday morning.

The accident at the 13th pillar of the Alma underpass fits the profile exactly. Just another banal Parisian road accident.