20 years ago, Diana, Princess of Wales died as a result of a fatal car crash in a Paris tunnel. The monument standing above the road tunnel where the princess’ car hit a pillar became a de facto shrine to Lady Diana. The Flame of Liberty, as it is known, was offered to the city of Paris in 1989 by the International Herald Tribune from worldwide donations. In this article I talk a bit more about the sculpture and its indirect link to Diana.
Diana’s fatal accident in the Place de l’Alma underpass
Lady Diana’s Mercedes car left the rear entrance of the Ritz hotel (Place Vendôme) at around 12:20am on the 31st August 1997 heading to rue Arsène Houssaye. The car crossed the Place de la Concorde, drove along Cours la Reine and Cours Albert 1er into the tunnel that goes under Place de l’Alma (16th arrt) where it hit a pillar at approximately 12:23am.
Diana was transferred to the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital (13th arrt) just after 2am and died two hours later despite many resuscitation attempts. The funeral of Diana took place at Westminster Abbey, London on the 6th September.
The reaction to Diana’s death was overwhelming as millions of mourners came to Kensington Palace to lay flowers. My mother-in-law (also called Diana if you can believe it!) was one of them and travelled from Portsmouth to London to pay homage to Lady Diana. It was reported that the pile of flowers was 1.5 metres (5 ft) deep. My wife Rachel was actually in Paris when it happened and remembers the shock and disbelief of both French and English people. “It was very strange as a young fille au-pair to wake up and be told that Princess Diana had died nearby in the night. It was something un-thinkable that made everyone gasp when they heard the news. She was definitely someone that my Mum looked up to and who I personally had a lot of respect for. I always liked the way she made a stand for what she believed in and the fruit of her work with her two then young boys has become evident in the past few years. She was someone incredible.”
The Flame of Liberty at Place de l’Alma
Like many others, the first time I saw the monument at Place de l’Alma, I sincerely thought it was erected in memory of Lady Diana. It’s only later I discovered that the Flame of Liberty had been standing on the site since May 1989 and that the gilded sculpture is a symbol of friendship between France and America.
In fact, the golden light monument has nothing to do with the the Candle in the Wind, the beloved princess, nor has it with England. If you look more closely at the monument you will recognise the flame of the Statue of Liberty in New York. The flame is indeed a full-scale replica of the torch held by the statue that marks the entrance to the harbour of New York City. Liberty Enlightening the World (its real name) was sculpted in Paris by Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, a native from Colmar, Alsace. The statue was donated to the United States and placed in Liberty Island where it was dedicated on the 28th October 1886.
Now, the Place de l’Alma’s flame is covered with gold leaf and sits on a grey and black marble pedestal. It is 3.5m tall (11.48 ft) and overlooks the exit of the underpass.
Check the base of the flame to read the message written on the commemorative plaque:
« Flamme de la Liberté. Réplique exacte de la flamme de la statue de la Liberté offerte au peuple français par des donateurs du monde entier en symbole de l’amitié franco-américaine. À l’occasion du centenaire de l’International Herald Tribune. Paris 1887-1987. »
“The Flame of Liberty. An exact replica of the Statue of Liberty’s flame offered to the people of France by donors throughout the world as a symbol of the Franco-American friendship. On the occasion of the centennial of the International Herald Tribune. Paris 1887-1987.”
The Flame of Liberty became a shrine to Lady Diana
Eight years after its dedication, the monument became an unofficial memorial for Diana as the car crashed in the underpass just under the square. The whole pedestal of the monument was covered with commemorative tokens, pictures, candles, flowers, kind words and love locks attached to the chain surrounding the torch. Elton John’s song also created a strong visual link with the song he wrote for Diana “Candle in the Wind“. People were naturally drawn to the monument as it was just above where the accident happened.
How to get to Place de l’Alma
The Place de l’Alma métro station is reached by line 9. Across the pont de l’Alma is the RER C station Pont de l’Alma.
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