LONDON – Paparazzi, French media and a British royal: The publication of topless photos of Prince William's wife Kate has reunited the same players whose clash ended with the untimely death of his mother, Princess Diana, in a Parisian car crash.
William, who has long harbored a grudge against the paparazzi who chased Diana in the days and hours leading up to her 1997 death, was clearly infuriated. The royal couple hit back with an immediate lawsuit against the popular French gossip magazine Closer, which is owned by former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's Mondadori publishing empire.
The blurry photos, called a "grotesque" abuse of privacy by royal officials, show Kate — the Duchess of Cambridge — wearing only a skimpy bikini bottom. They are the first to show Britain's likely future queen with her bosom exposed.
St. James's Palace officials sharply criticized the magazine moments after the photos hit French newsstands, comparing the intrusion on the young couple's privacy to the tragic paparazzi pursuit of Diana, which many believe was a contributing factor in her early death on Aug. 31, 1997.
The parallels between the past and the present were eerie. Diana was hounded by paparazzi who took telephoto shots of her vacationing on a yacht with her boyfriend Dodi and tailed them relentlessly in Paris.
Earlier this month, a photographer with a similar long lens captured Kate and William relaxing in the sun at a private estate in Provence, a vacation spot near the French Riviera.
Instead of challenging the authenticity of the blurry photos, palace officials said they appear genuine — and should never have been taken, much less published.
"The incident is reminiscent of the worst excesses of the press and paparazzi during the life of Diana, Princess of Wales, and all the more upsetting to the Duke and Duchess for being so," a St. James's Palace official in London said in a statement.
The British media — chastened by a deep scandal over phone hacking and other misdeeds — all shied away from using the photos. That restraint came even though Rupert Murdoch's The Sun tabloid is famed for its daily "Page 3" topless shots.
The photos, which were not available on English newsstands, appeared to unite many Britons behind their royal family.
"I think it's quite outrageous," said Alice Mason, 24, from London. "They were on holidays in a private place and some creepy journalist took pictures. It's not in the public interest to see this.
"They are always going to be in the public eye, but there is a line, and they (the media) crossed that line."
She said the royal couple has "every right to be outraged, especially with what happened to Diana."
Much of the anger seemed to stem from the fact that the royal couple was at a private residence when they were photographed.
Prime Minister David Cameron chimed in to support the royal couple's right to privacy. William, second in line to the British throne after his father Prince Charles, married Kate in 2011 and both have recently expressed an interest in having children.
Royal officials have stressed that William and Kate should not be photographed when they are not in public. They have complained before about candid pictures of the couple walking their cocker spaniel puppy Lupo on a wintry day in north Wales, where William is based as a military search-and-rescue pilot. The palace has also complained about an Australian magazine's use of photos of the couple on their honeymoon.
Those complaints were expressed quietly compared to Friday's stern reproach of the French media.
Laurence Pieau, the editor of Closer, defended the decision to use the topless photos, telling The Associated Press the pictures were tasteful.
"For me, those pictures were not shocking. Just a beautiful couple, an in-love couple, in the south of France. Kate is the girl next door," she said.
She also dismissed accusations that the pictures invaded the couple's privacy.
"This terrace looked out on a public road and they were visible from the road. So they were not particularly trying to hide themselves," she said.
Pieau added that she found the pictures of Kate far tamer than those of a naked Prince Harry in Las Vegas hotel suite that were published in Britain's The Sun tabloid last month.
A French lawyer who is an expert in media law said the royal couple had clear grounds for an invasion of privacy case against the magazine.
"French magistrates take into account the victim's behavior, when the person is flaunting themselves on camera. Kate Middleton will get damages because she's not behaving in this way," said the lawyer, Anne Pigeon-Bormans.
If the couple's lawsuit reaches court and if the magazine is found guilty, it could face a fine of up to €45,000 (about $60,000). Potential criminal sanctions include up to a year in prison, according to French law. Last week, French first lady Valerie Trierweiler won a judgment of €2,000 ($2,580) after the publication of photos of her in a bikini.
The British media, wary about an ongoing U.K. inquiry into suspected criminal wrongdoing at a number of papers, has generally respected the palace guidelines.
"There's absolutely zero chance of the British press publishing these photos," Neil Wallis, the former deputy editor of the Murdoch's News of the World, told AP.
Wallis, who was arrested last year in the British phone hacking scandal, said the arguments against publication under British rules are many: Kate had an expectation of privacy, she was doing nothing wrong and she was photographed by stealth by someone using a long lens.
In contrast, he said, publishing the naked photos of Prince Harry was legitimate because they raised questions about his judgment and the security arrangements around the third in line to the British throne.
Associated Press writers Raissa Ioussouf in London, and Lori Hinnant, Thomas Adamson and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.