the tragedy: Prince paid his last respects ... then the coffin lid was closed

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She came to say her final goodbye to the woman the French call Lady Di. Perched on a wall next to the railings of the Pitie Salpetriere Hospital, Giselle Dartues, a middle-aged Parisienne, had tears in her eyes. "It's very, very sad. Lady Di was very, very kind. The whole country liked her a great deal," she said.

Michele Dupont, her friend, said they had come to show "solidarity". "It's impossible to understand this," she said.

Just as crowds had gathered outside Kensington Palace, the people of France came yesterday to the hospital where staff had fought to save Diana.

About 5.40 local time they saw a grave-faced Prince Charles arrive, accompanied by Diana's two sisters, Lady Sarah McCorquodale and Lady Jane Fellowes, together with her husband Robert, the principal private secretary to the Queen, to be greeted by 12 members of the Guard Republicaine in blue, gold and red uniforms.

Inside, the Prince met President Chirac and two of the doctors who tried to save Diana, Professor Bruno Riou, an anaesthetist, and Professor Alain Pavil, a cardiac surgeon.

The Prince and the two sisters were then led to a private room where Diana had been laid out in a coffin and they paid their respects. The lid of the coffin was then closed and draped with the royal emblem and placed in a blue Renault hearse.

A select number of photographers had been invited to the hospital for a short photocall and some hospital staff shouted at them, "Assassins," and "Show some respect".

After 25 minutes, the party left the hospital. French pallbearers carried the coffin, now draped in the Royal Standard, to a hearse, led by the Reverend Martin Draper of the Anglican St George's Cathedral in Paris. As the the coffin left the building, an embassy aide said: "Quelle jour, quelle horreur."

Two aides each carried a bouquet of lilies and gladioli, which were placed on the coffin before the cortege left for Villacoublay military airport for the return flight to Britain. As it swept away, the crowd broke into a ripple of applause, like an audible signal of condolence.

At the airport, Charles watched grimly as the coffin was loaded into the belly of the aircraft by eight pallbearers led by the bearer party commander, Flight Lieutenant Kelly. French troops stood silently to attention, weapons across their chests in salute.

As the coffin left for Britain, the French reflected on the special popularity that Diana had among them. Outside the hospital, many had spoken of the effect her death would have on the young princes and discussed the "tragedy" of her life. And for those who continued to stand outside long after the royal party had been and gone, Diana was clearly not like any other patient at all.

On the hospital steps, candles flickered in memory of a women who had been held in special regard by the French.