LONDON – A manager at the Ritz Hotel in Paris said Tuesday that he knew the driver for Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed had been drinking before their fatal crash, but he felt he was not in a position to object.
Thierry Rocher told the British coroner's inquest that driver Henri Paul was acting director of security at the hotel and had a special relationship with the Fayed family and top management.
Had any other employee been seen drinking while working, Rocher said, "that person surely would have been dismissed."
Paul's drinking is a key issue in the inquest's examination of the deaths of the princess and her boyfriend of six weeks.
French and British police both concluded that Paul was well over the legal limit for alcohol, and was driving too fast when he crashed a car carrying the couple in a road tunnel on Aug. 31, 1997.
Fayed's father, Mohamed Al Fayed, has claimed that blood tests on Paul were falsified, and that the couple were the victims of a plot orchestrated by Prince Philip, husband of Queen Elizabeth II.
Rocher, who was night manager of the hotel, also said photographers may have overheard plans to take Diana and Fayed away from the hotel by a back entrance. Paparazzi chased the car toward the tunnel where it crashed.
Dodi Fayed devised the plan to leave by the back entrance rather than the front, where photographers gathered, Rocher said, and wanted only him (Rocher) and Paul to know about it. Several photographers were standing near the back entrance when the couple emerged.
Rocher said he did not know the full details of the plan until he had a conversation outside the hotel with the Ritz's usual chauffeurs, Philippe Dorneau and Jean-Francois Musa, night security manager Francois Tendil, bodyguard Kes Wingfield and porter Sebastien Cavalera.
Rocher said Wingfield outlined to Dorneau and Musa the plan to leave from the back with Paul driving.
"Then Mr. Wingfield called and made a sign to Henri Paul who was still in Place Vendome (in front of the hotel) talking to the paparazzi and he told him in English, 'Henri you will leave from the Rue Cambon (in the back),' and then Mr. Henri Paul came back in the hotel."
Rocher said Wingfield had spoken "quite loudly."
After Rocher informed Paul of the plan, "he thanked me and said, 'I'm going to finish my Ricard (drink) with the Englishmen."'
Asked whether it was against the rules for Ritz employees to drink on duty, Rocher said, "Being the safety manager he had a direct relationship with the al Fayed family so I have no comment on that."
The inquest jury has previously been told that Paul had sought treatment for alcoholism, and had been prescribed medicine to discourage drinking.
Richard Horwell, a lawyer representing London's police, asked Rocher whether he approved of drinking on duty.
"Nobody was allowed to drink alcohol while on duty but Henri Paul had a specific status in the organizational chart at the hotel. ... Henri Paul reported directly to Mr. Klein (president of the Ritz)," and in his absence, Klein's assistant.
"I was in no position to say anything to him because, as a matter of fact, he was reporting directly to Mr Klein," Rocher added.
"Also, he had been spending time with the two bodyguards, so it was up to them to judge whether he could drive or not or whether he should, if he was going to be asked to drive, if it was proper for him to do so."
In a statement given to French police in 1997, Rocher was quoted as saying that Fayed was very irritated that night - "at the end of his tether."
"He was not in his normal state and, in my opinion, it is possible that this could have changed Mr. Paul's behavior a little later while he was at the wheel," the French statement recorded Rocher as saying.
On Tuesday, Rocher denied that statement.
"I would never have dared say such a thing," Rocher said.