It was a diplomatic incident so bizarre it became an episode in the television sitcom Yes, Prime Minister – but the British cabinet was not laughing at the time.
Newly declassified cabinet minutes reveal the government’s astonishment that a French security officer, in London for the state visit of President François Mitterrand, had placed two containers of explosives inside the grounds of the French embassy, apparently to test the efficiency of the British security services.
When discovered and questioned by the police, the operative was found to have additional explosives on him, which were seized. The man had apparently avoided airport security checks by revealing he was an intelligence officer.
The incident came only a few weeks after the IRA bomb at Brighton, where Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher narrowly escaped with her life.
The minutes reveal the cabinet’s anger – and bemusement – recording “it was agreed the episode was inexplicable and unacceptable”, adding in understated language: “The police are naturally extremely annoyed at what had occurred.”
Charles-Henri d’Aragon, who was in charge of press affairs at the French embassy at the time, told the Financial Times this week that the episode, known in France as the “Sniffer Dog affair”, was largely the result of a misunderstanding.
He said the French security officer had “no intention of embarrassing” his British counterparts. The explosive material was part of his equipment and had been planted as part of a Franco-British security exercise to check the embassy grounds ahead of a reception at which the Queen was expected.
“The [British] dog found it. Everyone said what a good dog it was and they all thought that was the end of the matter,” Mr d’Aragon said. The French side was surprised when British police later issued a statement accusing Paris of “turpitude”.