OPINION: French police secrecy encouraged wild conspiracy theories on Princess Diana and Al-Hilli deaths

Veteran reporter John Lichfield reported on both the death of Princess Diana and Dodi Al-Fayed in Paris in 1997 and the Al-Hilli family in the French Alps in 2012 - he looks back at the media circus that surrounded both cases and how the French police policies encouraged the wild conspiracy theories that still rage to this day.

OPINION: French police secrecy encouraged wild conspiracy theories on Princess Diana and Al-Hilli deaths
Floral tributes to Princess Diana and Dodi Al-Fayed near the Pont de l'Alma in Paris. Photo by Patrick KOVARIK / AFP

Wednesday is the 25th anniversary of the road accident which killed Princess Diana and Dodi Al-Fayed in Paris. Next Monday is the 10th anniversary of the Al-Hilli murders in the French Alps.

What do these two events have in common, other than the proximity of their dates?

They are both – still – the object of wild conspiracy theories.

In both cases, if you look at the undisputed facts, the possibilities are limited. The Diana accident could only have been an accident. The Al-Hilli murders were almost certainly a random act by someone local.

Neither of these explanations is satisfactory to a chunk of the popular media – in France as well as in Britain. Wild notions still thrive.

I reported both events at the time. I have studied them in some detail. The sequence of events makes any form of assassination impossible (in the case of Diana and Dodi’s death) or extremely unlikely (in the case of the Al-Hilli murders).

In both cases, the French investigators have been criticised in the UK media. Is there any truth to the criticisms? A little; not much.

What is certainly true is that both events illustrated the huge gulf between the ways that French and Anglo-Saxon investigators deal with the media.

In theory, every party of a French criminal investigation is secret once it is handed over to an examining magistrate or juge d’instruction. In the case of the Diana accident in 1997,  the investigating magistrate, Hervé Stéphan, took that principle seriously. In the first couple of weeks, very little information, beyond the basic facts, was given to the world media assembled in Paris.

Together with a BBC colleague, Hugh Schofield, I  wrote to Judge Stéphan at the time. We said we understood the French system but unless he allowed the official findings to be released, a thousand conspiracy theories would breed.

He wrote back to say, in effect: “You are absolutely right but my hands are tied. Rules are rules.”

By the time of the Al-Hilli murders 15 years later, it seemed to me that that the French judicial authorities had learned their lessons from the information débacle in the Diana case. The Annecy chief prosecutor, Eric Maillaud, gave regular press conferences. Some of the leading gendarmerie investigators took part.

Even so, the information was limited and strangely filtered. It took a big leak to Le Monde in November (two months after the event) to establish the basic time-line of what happened in a forest lay-by near the village of Chevaline on September 5th, 2012.

Once again, the absence of fundamental information allowed wild theories to take hold.

Take the accident in Paris first. There are some areas of uncertainty. A white Fiat which struck Diana and Dodi’s limousine has never been traced. But the undisputed facts make it impossible for anyone to have organised an assassination attempt and disguised it as an accident.

The route taken by Diana and Dodi that night was random. They were trying to shake off the paparazzi on motorbikes who were pursuing them from the Ritz Hotel. Rather than go straight back to Dodi’s flat just off the Champs Elysées, they took a large detour along the fast quais beside the river Seine.

Their driver was the worse for both drink and drugs. He was actually heading away from Dodi’s flat when he crashed into a pillar in the tunnel below the Place de L’Alma.

How could anyone – M16, CIA or the Royal Family – have known that their limo would have been in that place at that time?

Now, the Al-Hilli murders.

All sorts of intriguing or suspicious-sounding information has been unearthed by the media about the three victims: Saad Al-Hilli, 50, his wife Iqbal, 47, and her mother Suhaila Al-Alaf, 74. Similar theories have been advanced to suggest that the real target of the murders was Sylvain Mollier, 46, the local cyclist found dead beside the British-Iraqi family’s car.

Both the Al-Hillis and Mollier took random decisions that day to drive or cycle to the end of a winding, bumpy 3 kilometre road into the forests and mountains above Lake Annecy.

Witnesses saw no sign that they were followed. It is difficult to imagine how a murderer – contract killer in the case of the Al-Hillis; someone with a personal grudge in the case of Mollier – could have been lying in wait for them at that isolated place at 3.30pm that afternoon.

The forensic evidence found at the scene suggests that killer was there when they arrived. It also identifies the gun used as a 70 years old (at least) 7.65 mm P06 Luger, issued to the Swiss army and police until the end of the 1930s. That is scarcely the weapon of choice for a contract killer.

After dutifully following all possible leads about Saad Al-Hilli’s business activities as a microsatellite  engineer and his quarrel with his brother about their father’s will, French investigators long ago reached a working conclusion. The murders were a random act by a deranged local man, who has since died or is still lying low.

Conclusion: the French policy of “secrecy of the investigation” encourages wild interpretations, and pure invention, to prosper. Twenty five and ten years later, the collective, popular memory – especially of the Princess Diana road accident – retains the wild theories. It is often hazy on the facts.

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OPINION: Macron’s pension reform is wildly unpopular and badly timed – but essential for France

One thing that everyone can agree on is that Emmanuel Macron's new pension reforms are likely to be highly unpopular and lead to strikes and demonstrations - so why is he doing it? John Lichfield looks at the president's thinking and why France, in fact, needs this reform.

OPINION: Macron's pension reform is wildly unpopular and badly timed - but essential for France

The Belgians do it until they are 65. The Germans keep going until they are 65 and 7 months. The British manage it until they are 66. But the French – in theory – stop at 62 (and French train drivers give up much younger than that).

We are talking, of course, of work and the minimum legal age at which European countries can retire on a full state pension.  

President Emmanuel Macron is about to declare war on the French people. He thinks that they should work longer. An overwhelming majority of French people – at least 70 percent according to recent polls – believe that they should not.

President Macron decided on Wednesday night to push ahead rapidly with a new version of the pension reform which was abandoned (when close to enactment) in March 2020 because of the Covid pandemic.

Militant trades unions have – by coincidence – organised over 200 demonstrations across the country today to protest against several things, including Macron’s desire to delay the retirement age. That is just a taste of the mayhem to come.

Remember the long rail and power worker strikes of 2019? Or the protests of 1995 which almost brought France to its knees? They were both about pension reform.

You can hear John talking more about pension reform in the latest episode of Talking France – download it HERE, find it on Spotify, Apple or Google podcasts or listen on the link below.

After a meeting with senior ministers and leaders of his centrist alliance, Macron has, for now, put aside the idea of imposing pension reform by Christmas by parliamentary putsch. He will allow two months for discussions on detail – but no negotiation on fundamentals – with the unions.

 A draft law to increase gradually the minimum retirement age to 65, or maybe 64, will be presented in December and pushed through by February. The 2023 budget plan published this week assumes that the first stage in delayed retirement will take effect from July.

Macron no longer has a majority in the national assembly to be sure of enacting pension reform by normal vote. He let it be known today that the government will use, if necessary, its powers under Article 49.3 of the constitution. This allows the government to pass one piece of general legislation by decree in each annual session (and an unlimited amount of financial legislation).

READ ALSO What is Article 49.3? 

Opposition members could block a new pensions law by supporting a vote of no confidence (as is their constitutional right). In that case, Macron warned today, he will dissolve the assembly and force new parliamentary elections (as is his constitutional right).

In other words, Macron is ready to play hard ball.

But does it make sense to play hard ball in such hard times?

My favourite French left-wing politician, François Ruffin, the deputy for the Somme (who is sometime annoying but often practical and sensible) describes Macron’s approach as “an act of madness”.

Ruffin said: “After two years of the Covid crisis, with people exhausted, with Emmanuel Macron re-elected without any momentum or enthusiasm, when people don’t know whether they can pay their bills…in this time of exasperation and democracy fatigue, he is going to defy the vast majority of French people – 70 percent to 80 percent according to the polls – and impose pension reform by force.”

So why is Macron doing it? And why now? The first question is easier to answer than the second.

There are two strong arguments for pension reform in France.

As people live longer, a supposedly self-financing system will start to run into deficit next year. According to the official projections, short-falls as high as €10 billion by 2027 and €20 billion by 2032 will have to be paid out of  taxation or state borrowing.

In other words the pension system – in which pensions are supposedly paid from workers’ and bosses’ contributions – will start to limit other spending or swell the French deficit and debt.

Secondly, there is a strong, economic argument that France should work for longer. It is unsustainable for the French to retire three years (at least) earlier than their European partners and competitors.  

France is not a “lazy” country. Those French people who do work do so very productively.  But, taken as a whole, France works less hours than other nations – partly because of the 35 hour week, partly through unemployment but mostly because of the early minimum retirement age.

According to a OECD study, France worked 630 hours a year per inhabitant in 2018, including children and the retired. Germany worked 722 hours per inhabitant; the UK 808 hours, and the USA 826. 

Macron argues that France can only afford its generous social model and can only compete successfully with its European partners and global rivals if – as a nation – if it puts in more hours.

Both these arguments are admittedly open to challenge. The state pension fund deficit is not as big as was once feared. There is actually a surplus this year because so many old people died during the Covid pandemic. In the long run, however, the deficits will grow.

The economic argument can also be quibbled with. Many French people already work beyond 62; many other older people would like to work but can’t find jobs.

In the medium to long term, however, the arguments for pension reform are as powerful as Macron says. But that leaves the question: “why now?” 

Does not France, and the world, have problems enough this winter without Macron picking a huge new fight on the French retirement age?

The President argues that he was given a “mandate” for pension reform by his victory in the presidential election in April. That is dubious. It would be more accurate to say that he lost his parliamentary majority in June because voters detested the idea of working for longer and Macron failed to make the argument why they should.

Now, after a period of drift, the President has decreed that pensions will be the ground on which he fights for a domestic legacy.

Despite a first term disrupted by Covid, despite the loss of his parliamentary majority, Macron wants to be the first President for half a century to leave France stronger than he found it – whether France likes it or not.

Let battle commence.