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Last Updated: Friday, 16 November 2007, 14:36 GMT
Franco-British tensions surface at inquest
Nicholas Witchell
BBC royal correspondent

Seven weeks into the inquest into the deaths of Diana, Princess of Wales, and Dodi Al Fayed, differences in approach are emerging between the British and the French.

The Mercedes Princess Diana was travelling in
Princess Diana died after the crash in the Pont de l'Alma Tunnel

Franco-British tensions are never far from the surface of this inquest.

They have been most apparent in the arguments over whether the paparazzi photographers who pursued the princess' car and photographed its wreckage should be compelled to give evidence.

The French have decided that they should not.

They say it is "far from clear" whether French law allows French courts to oblige witnesses to appear in proceedings such as these, which they argue are essentially "administrative" rather than criminal - a reference to a coroner's court.

The French have also invoked something called "ordre public" as a further justification for their refusal to force the paparazzi to testify.

They say that any such compulsion could "damage relations between the media, the government and the general public".

And if that isn't sufficient, the French authorities have also pointed out that the paparazzi have already given evidence to the French investigation into the crash and that they have nothing new to say.

According to the British coroner, Lord Justice Scott Baker, "the French authorities consider this a good argument".

Too aggressive

That certainly isn't how the British lawyers representing Dodi Al Fayed's father, Mohammed, see it.

The thing that really raised British hackles was the disclosure by the coroner that the French decision not to compel potential witnesses to testify had been a "political" one

Indeed, it would be fair to say that the French decision has dismayed virtually all the lawyers and officials involved in the inquest.

They all regard the evidence of the paparazzi as potentially very important and agree that they, of all people, should be subjected to a proper cross-examination.

There again, it seems that the French don't much care for the style employed by British barristers when it comes to cross-examination. This was evident after Richard Keen QC, representing the parents of Mercedes driver Henri Paul, had sharpened his tongue on French witness Stephane Darmon - a motorcycle rider carrying one of the paparazzi, Romauld Rat, as a passenger.

Word came back from Paris that the French authorities regarded Mr Keen's cross-examination as much too cross and much too aggressive for their rather gentler way of doing things.

Princess Diana
The coroner said there were questions over forensic tests

The thing that really raised British hackles was the disclosure by the coroner that the French decision not to compel potential witnesses to testify had been a "political" one.

The decision had been taken in the offices of a French government minister, he said.

There is a distinct impression among inquest lawyers that the French are hypersensitive at the prospect of the British criticising the way the French handled the crash and its aftermath.

In particular, there is a suspicion at the High Court that the French want to prevent some of their professional witnesses - notably the pathologists who examined Henri Paul's remains - from being "roughed up" by the British barristers.

'Political' decision

As Lord Justice Scott Baker hinted in his opening statement to the inquest, there are some very real questions about the competence of some of the first forensic tests carried out by the French.

And it seems the French authorities may wish to shield some witnesses from professional humiliation at the hands of a British court.

Hence the "political" decision that if a French witness - even a paparazzo - decides not to give evidence, there is nothing the French authorities are prepared to do to force him or her to do so.

The fear is that a lack of wholehearted support from across the channel can only play into the hands of those conspiracy theorists who believe that the French - and possible some others - have something to hide.



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