National Archives: Suspicion and distrust over France’s sale of Exocets

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Fears France could allow Argentina to acquire deadly Exocet missiles at the height of the Falklands War strained Margaret Thatcher’s relationship with President Francois Mitterrand close to breaking point, according to official files.

Publicly, Mrs Thatcher always praised Mr Mitterrand for his support during the conflict, but papers released by the National Archives reveal the intense suspicion and distrust of the French in London. At one point, a furious Mrs Thatcher warned the president of “disastrous” consequences for the Nato alliance if a fresh consignment of French-built Exocets was allowed to reach Argentina.

Initially, the French were reluctant to reveal how many of the Exocet AM39s they had supplied to Argentina. It was only on 11 May, a week after the attack on HMS Sheffield, that the British embassy in Paris was told an order for ten had been agreed, of which five had been delivered.

The French promised not to complete the order while the conflict continued, but UK officials determined they must stop the Argentines getting more. “The stakes are very high for both the Argentines and ourselves,” warned foreign secretary Francis Pym.