Palace says Rainier vitals signs 'have stabilised'


MONACO: Could Prince Rainier III of Monaco survive the severe respiratory infection which put him in hospital for the past three weeks? A medical update issued by the palace yesterday provided a glimmer of hope, saying that Rainier's "cardiac, lung and kidney functions, which had not ceased deteriorating, have stabilised".

Rainier (81) was transferred to the intensive-care unit of Monaco's Cardio-Thoracic Centre one week ago and placed on a respirator.

Yesterday's communique ended widespread rumours that the prince was "brain dead" and that his children and doctors were waiting until the Easter holiday weekend was over to "unplug" life-support machines.

"The Sovereign is conscious, but under sedation, which enables him to withstand the respiratory assistance that is absolutely indispensable," the statement said.

The confusion and rumours surrounding Rainier's long agony are reminiscent of the death of the Palestinian president Yasser Arafat outside Paris last November. Each day, the prince's three doctors issue a laconic update to the hundreds of journalists who have flocked to the tiny principality to wait for his death. Saturday's statement that the prognosis was "extremely reserved" was interpreted as confirmation that Rainier was dying. But in yesterday's statement, the word "extremely" was reduced to "very".

Paparazzi are allowed to stand outside the medical centre for only 15 minutes of every two hours to take pictures of the arrivals and departures of Rainier's children, grand-children and friends - an irony for the family at the origin of the celebrity press phenomenon.

In other signs that Rainier's life might soon end, President Jacques Chirac telephoned Prince Albert, who will succeed his father. (France holds huge influence over the principality, appointing Monaco's ministre d'état or prime minister.)

Prince Albert (47) and his sister Princess Caroline (48) appeared at their father's hospital window and waved to well-wishers. Rainier's grandchildren Pierre (17), and Andréa (20) - the third in line to the throne - visited his bedside.

Most of Monaco's 32,000 residents are Catholic, and Rainier made Catholicism the principality's state religion. César Penzo, the Grimaldis' family chaplain, left the medical centre in tears, and the Pope's secretary of state Angelo Sodano said John Paul II had given a "special benediction" for Rainier and "entrusted him to the intercession of the Virgin Mary".

At Easter Mass in Monaco cathedral, where Rainier married the US film star Grace Kelly in 1956, Archbishop Bernard Barsi prayed for both Rainier and the Pope. In the cathedral's crypt, an unmarked marble headstone waits for Rainier, beside the stone engraved with the name "Gratia Patricia" when Grace was killed in a car crash in 1982.

There will be three days of mourning between the announcement of Rainier's death and the funeral, followed by three more months of official mourning.

"We are working as if Rainier had already died," an unnamed official told Le Journal du Dimanche. The Nice police department has chosen an itinerary for motorcades from Nice airport. Up to 80 delegations are expected. Flights over Monaco will be banned during the funeral.

In Monaco, Rainier is known as le patron (the boss) because he ran the principality like a business. After succeeding his grandfather Prince Louis II 56 years ago, Rainier set about modernising and enlarging the world's second smallest country (after the Vatican).

By investing hundreds of millions of euro in concrete landfill, Rainier increased Monaco's size by 20 per cent, to slightly more than two square kilometres.

He gained more precious land by digging a tunnel through the rocky mountainside for the railway line to Italy. His 90,000sq m Fontvielle industrial zone employs 10 per cent of the population. And Rainier built the Port Hercule, an extraordinary floating jetty 16 times the size of the Eiffel Tower, to enable Monaco to receive large yachts.

As Rainier's health worsened over the past decade, Prince Albert gradually took over his father's duties, and there will be a smooth transition.

The romantic entanglements of princesses Caroline and Stephanie have sold millions of gossip magazines. Though far more discreet than his sisters, Prince Albert was sometimes considered a playboy because he dated top models such as Claudia Schiffer and Linda Evangelista.

Because he never married, some claimed he was gay. Princess Grace once said of Albert: "He never caused us any trouble. He is a very serious boy."