Kate Middleton photos: Reminder of long reach of the public eye

Topless Kate Middleton photos in a French gossip magazine – less than a month after Prince Harry's nude Las Vegas photos went viral on the web – rip the relative decorum that had surrounded the royal couple.

Robert F. Bukaty/AP
Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, shown here in July 2011, is suing a French magazine after it published photos of her sunbathing.

French magazine Closer published a series of photos of Britain's Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton, sunbathing topless on Friday, dealing a fresh blow to the royal family as it tries to move on from a scandal over naked shots of Prince Harry.

Closer, a weekly round-up of celebrity gossip, ran a five-page spread of photos of Middleton relaxing topless with Prince William on a balcony at a 19th century hunting lodge in southern France it said is owned by a son of the late Princess Margaret.

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Under the headline "Oh my God!," the photos show the Duchess removing her bikini top then relaxing on a sun lounger, apparently oblivious to paparazzi lurking nearby as the pair vacationed at the property in early September.

The publication reopens a debate over the privacy of Britain's royal family and the freedom of the press just weeks after a US website published grainy photos of William's younger brother Harry cavorting naked in a Las Vegas hotel room.

"Harry started the fashion: these days the Windsors take their clothes off,"  the French magazine quipped in the photo spread, which it claimed as a world exclusive.

The royal couple, who are on a tour of southeast Asia, learned of the magazine spread while in Malaysia and were angry and sad their privacy had been breached, a royal source said, adding the pictures were believed to be genuine.

A second source said Buckingham Palace planned to contact French lawyers to see what options were available.

"There is a feeling of anger and disbelief about these photographs," the source said. "We feel there has been a red line crossed with regard to publishing these images."

There was no immediate comment from Closer magazine.

The photos of Harry stained a positive image the Royal family has carefully crafted as it worked to turn the page on Princess Diana's death in 1997 and a raft of scandals at the time including Prince Andrew's ex-wife Sarah Ferguson photographed as she sunbathed topless.

The first royal source said Friday's photos in Closer, taken at a private location and in breach of French privacy laws, had "turned the clock back 15 years."

Willam and Kate were on a short vacation at the Chateau d'Autet near Aix-en-Provence in the Luberon region, whose picture-postcard villages, rolling lavender fields and vineyards have made it a favorite getaway spot for wealthy foreigners.

At one point the Duchess, clearly recognizable in the slightly fuzzy images, stands up and partly peels down her bikini bottoms as William rubs sun lotion on her back.

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"The last time we saw Kate and William on a balcony it was for their wedding. But they had more clothes on," reads one photo caption. Another says: "People always say she doesn't need to dress up to look good. Well ... Kate is proving this."

Closer also said Kate was spotted smoking a cigarette as the couple walked out of nearby Marseille airport where they arrived on a commercial flight.

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