The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge – or "Kate et William” as the French press predictably prefer – are flying the flag for Britain on their first official visit to Paris.
This wholesome exercise in soft power has already acquired undertones that the original planners are unlikely to acknowledge. The figure of Prince William’s mother is the main unspoken story of the visit and, especially, her death in a road accident in a Paris underpass. All fully expected, given that he and his wife are visiting the city during the twentieth anniversary of that devastating tragedy.
Diana and Paris were already closely linked. She and Prince Charles made a spectacularly successful ceremonial tour in 1988 and she was back again in 1992 for an even more headline-grabbing solo visit. I organised this and several subsequent working visits to France and was able to watch as the city and the Princess developed an affection for each other. This was no mere frisson. With her appreciation of ballet, art, music and of course fashion it was love at first sight, which is why, despite the inevitable talk of his mother’s death, I hope that Prince William will allow time to recall the Paris where his mother enjoyed some of her happiest moments – both as a princess and as a beautiful, strong and independent woman.
More than twenty years on, I can still recall her very expressive blue eyes. With them she would communicate a complete range of emotions with a speed and clarity that would beat the best internet connection today. A few of us got so good at reading the messages that it was like having our own private radio network. One winter evening in 1994, on her second solo visit to Paris, Diana was guest of honour at a grand Barnardos/UNICEF banquet in the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles. Across the room I suddenly sensed her eyes transmitting a clear distress message: “Get over here fast!”
I discreetly left my table and, dodging waiters and packed tables of VIP guests, made my way to where the Princess was sitting. On her plate a small bloody corpse lay neglected – a pigeon that had given its life for the entente cordiale. I leaned close to hear my boss whisper: “God Patrick, that man. He’s all over me like a rash!” I looked past her shoulder at Valery Giscard d’Estaing, former president of France; he was plainly impatient to resume his attempts at an ever-closer royal tete a tete. His romantic novel, coincidentally featuring a distinguished former French president and a beautiful Princess of Cardiff, was some years in the future so tonight he was presumably still at the research phase. Such Scholarship.
Diana was never one to shirk her duty and, having drawn my attention to her sacrifice for queen and country, she giggled briefly at my advice – “think of England, ma’am” – and turned once more to the diplomatic coal-face.
An hour or so later she was escorted the length of the Hall and out to her motorcade in a procession that brought 900 guests clapping to their feet. That support meant more than usual, given that she and Prince Charles had by then separated and her place in the royal hierarchy was increasingly under unfriendly scrutiny. I had an idea of the historic significance of a divorcing Princess of Wales receiving such a tribute in the palace of the Sun King Louis XIV. Against a backdrop of absolute monarchy, she had once again given a masterclass in how to be simultaneously vulnerable, defiant, regal and fun. It was a heartening image to take back to chilly London and one Prince William, then just twelve, may enjoy remembering.
For William and Catherine their official visit to Paris is one of the more enviable aspects of life in that cage: great national interests to support, sacrifice to be honoured, top drawer protocol, great media coverage and just a couple of nights away from the children. And you can eat the food.
Plus, they are in the hands of the Quai d’Orsay’s protocol experts, grand masters of the arcane art. Best of all, they are supported by a British embassy that doesn’t just look the part but provides a comforting base of effortless expertise and warm and thoughtful hospitality.
But it will also be a special challenge. They may have proved their royal ambassadorial credentials with other successful high profile tours, but Paris is the big time. As Diana knew, success in the capital of Frenchness requires every ounce of royal charisma and all the resources of the royal dress-up box. It was one reason she loved the place: it demanded that she be at the top of her game.
The hosts, having cut the head off a king more recently than the English, still have an ambivalent attitude to inherited privilege. Their passion for egalite won’t stop them wanting a touch of authentic Windsor regal hauteur; the crowds will be large and enthusiastic but are sophisticated observers of royal style too, and will be quick to spot any skimping on panache in the Cambridge road show. Even the local Brits, though friendly and respectful, are a tougher nut to crack than the ex-pats of Lesotho or Los Angeles. So, make a good impression in Paris and you can congratulate yourself that you really are worth it.
The scene of Diana’s accident, the Pont d’Alma tunnel, doesn’t appear in the official programme but that needn’t rule out an unscheduled private detour. It wasn’t a place I felt a need to visit either, but then in late 2015, I found myself at a conference just a few hundred yards from the tunnel. It was a ten-minute walk. From the parapet you can see down to the road along which Diana and her companions had rushed – every sense alive and, I hoped, laughing at the paparazzi motorcycles left far behind.
Walk to the opposite parapet and you can look down again, to the slope up which she had been carried, her life now measured in minutes. Leaning on the cool stone for a moment, I allowed the memories to flicker across my mind as I scanned the thousands of scribbled messages on the wall, in every language and expressing every depth of emotion. Some are poetic, others would embarrass a cheap greeting card. But together they are a mesmerizing work of remembrance to touch a heart of iron.
It was only later, as I trekked an epic distance back to my hotel, that I saw the TVs in the bars were showing a breaking news bulletin. Shops were being hurriedly shuttered. Then my phone lit up with anxious calls and I learned of the slaughter at the Bataclan. And much later, as helicopters and sirens drove away any chance of sleep, I realised that by lingering over the graffiti tributes at the Pont d’Alma, I had been just too late to catch a bus that would have taken me straight to the Boulevard Voltaire and a close encounter with terrorist bullets.
In Paris today, William will pay his own tribute to the first responders who rushed to help the injured and dying in France’s recent terror atrocities. It’s the kind of gesture that royal people tend to do better than politicians and the Cambridges are no exception. As we watch the future King and Queen express our shared appreciation to the rescuers, from somewhere close by we may also imagine those famously expressive very blue eyes looking on with the kind of approval only a mother can give. And if they seem quite undimmed, it’s because twenty years is just a blink, after all.