Driver of crash car known to have a drink problem

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The driver of the car in which the Princess of Wales died was known to have had a drink problem but appeared to have conquered it, according to staff at the Paris Ritz, writes John Lichfield.

But one unnamed hotel employee told the French newspaper Liberation that Henri Paul, 41, had arrived at the Ritz, which is owned by Mohamed al- Fayed, on the night of the crash "over-excited and drunk as a pig". A second medical test has put the level of alcohol in his blood that night even higher than the first estimation, at 187 milligrams per 100 millilitres, nearly four times the legal limit. This is equivalent to about one and a half bottles of wine.

A chauffeur outside the hotel yesterday said: "Monsieur Paul", a hulking former air-force pilot, was a familiar and well-liked figure. "A couple of years ago, yes, there was a problem," he said. "But we were all told he was drinking no more."

Another unnamed Ritz employee gave a similar story to Liberation. "He went on the wagon a year ago," the employee said. "A couple of days ago, at a reception for a house-keeper who was leaving, he drank nothing but orange juice."

However, another Ritz worker told Le Parisien: "You can't say that he was a boozer." The problem, he said, was that Monsieur Paul had gone home but had then been summoned back to the hotel by Dodi Fayed personally. "It all happened so quickly ... Dodi was the son of the owner and it was an order."

Mr Paul had worked at the hotel for 11 years as deputy head of security. Staff said that he loved to be seen, and photographed, with the stars who stayed at the hotel and prided himself on remembering their tastes and foibles. He was also well known to the press photographers who haunted the Ritz and often joked with them.

It was alleged again yesterday by a photographer, in an interview with a German newspaper, that Mr Paul had issued a kind of dare or challenge to the assembled paparazzi on Saturday night. "He said: `you won't catch us tonight'," said the unnamed French photographer, apparently one of several who fled the crash scene.

A Breton, Mr Paul loved to return to his native province at weekends, where he would fly private aircraft and sail. Although he was not a professional chauffeur, he had been on specialist driving courses organised by Mercedes and was often asked to drive VIPs - including, on at least one previous occasion, Dodi Fayed and the Princess of Wales.

Although all witness accounts agree that he was driving at enormously high speed at the time of the accident, the Parisian public prosecutor's office yesterday denied reports that the speed at the time of impact had been pin-pointed at 196 kph (121 mph). Expert estimations, based on the extent of damage to the armour-plated car, put Mr Paul's speed at 90-100mph.