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The surprising origins of Paris’s most moving tribute to Diana

It is the eve of the 20th anniversary of the death of Diana Princess of Wales, and I am at the site where the fatal car crash took place that August night in Paris in 1997. “We’ll never forget you,” is one of many notes scrawled in blue marker on the concrete entrance to the underpass on the north side of Pont de l’Alma.

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It is no surprise that over the ensuing years the area has become something of a shrine to the much-loved princess.

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Tributes centre mainly around a large burnished flame, mounted on a marble plinth, metres from the tunnel mouth. Along its base, somebody has carefully placed a series of hand-made collages, featuring pictures of the late princess and the number “20”, framed in heart-shaped garlands of red roses. More pictures of Diana have been tacked to the base too, from formal royal portraits to emotive shots of the mother with her sons William and Harry. Flowers are laid here all year round, but this week there are more than usual.

The statue is encircled by a thick metal chain, weighed down with the city’s trademark “love locks”, which sit rather incongruously. It doesn’t take long to work out where they are coming from as their seller, Mustapha, approaches clutching a box full of them. “Most days I sell padlocks, but tomorrow it will be flowers,” he explains.

The monument’s placement, directly above the tunnel, means many wrongly assume that the torch was built as a memorial for Diana – it is in fact more a symbol of Franco-American friendship.

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The flame is a replica of the one on the torch of New York’s Statue of Liberty, and was gifted to the city by donors to the International Herald Tribune newspaper (now the International New York Times) in 1989 to mark the centenary of the founding of the title in Paris. The Flame’s role today as an unofficial memorial to the Princess of Wales is entirely coincidental.

Few of the monument’s visitors are aware of its original purpose. This is the case for Talor, Kevin, Nauja and Sandy from Vancouver, who have come to see the Flame before taking a cruise on the Seine. Talor, a baby in 1997, said she was interested in the site as she had learnt about the princess’s story as a child. “We have a keen interest in what happened to Lady Di,” adds her friend, Sandy.

The flame is a replica of the one on the torch of New York’s Statue of Liberty, and was gifted to the city by donors to the International Herald Tribune newspaper (now the International New York Times) in 1989 to mark the centenary of the founding of the title in Paris. The Flame’s role today as an unofficial memorial to the Princess of Wales is entirely coincidental.

Few of the monument’s visitors are aware of its original purpose. This is the case for Talor, Kevin, Nauja and Sandy from Vancouver, who have come to see the Flame before taking a cruise on the Seine. Talor, a baby in 1997, said she was interested in the site as she had learnt about the princess’s story as a child. “We have a keen interest in what happened to Lady Di,” adds her friend, Sandy.

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Groups, couples and individuals come to the Flame, take a few pictures, linger five minutes to read notes and take pictures, and then head off along the banks of the river.

The observers’ attitudes to the monument range from mildly curious to reverentially thoughtful and even festive – some younger visitors avidly ask their parents about the details of the accident late on August 30, while Snapchatting pictures of the tributes.

More notes on the nearby entrance of the underpass, underpin a surreal juxtaposition of public tragedy and tourist attraction: “Rest in peace beautiful princess” is next to “Gracias Paris por las vacaciones (thanks Paris for the holiday)”.

SOURCE: TELEGRAPH

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