Analysis: how the "Irish of Vincennes" miscarriage of justice in 1982 caused a major political scandal for the French president

In the summer of 1982, François Mitterrand was riding high. His election as the first left-wing president of the Fifth Republic the previous year was the culmination of a life of political campaigning. Since his accession to power, he had enjoyed favourable popularity ratings at home and significant prestige abroad. However, Mitterrand's political honeymoon was about to come to an abrupt end. This is the story of the Irish republicans who rocked the French presidency.

On August 9th 1982, a group of masked men stormed the bustling Goldberg café at the heart of the Marais, Paris’ Jewish district. The attack, which went unclaimed, left six dead and 22 injured. The president vowed to leave no stone unturned in the hunt for the perpetrators. Mitterrand set up an anti-terrorist cell in the Elysée Palace, which would bypass the usual police hierarchies and report directly to him. The members of this new unit were given free rein and extensive resources. This would prove disastrous not just for the president and for the efforts of the victims of the attack to get justice, but also for a small group of Irish republican activists living in the French capital.

French president François Mitterrand

Paris has a long and storied history as a haven for Irish radical nationalists from Wolfe Tone to Maud Gonne. In the 1980s, the French government’s unofficial policy of turning a blind eye to foreign radical groups as long as they did not engage in violence on French territory, coupled with the French left’s traditional sympathy for the republican cause, made the city an attractive base for a new generation of Irish radicals.

Among them were three leading figures associated with the Irish Republican Socialist Party (IRSP): Michael Plunkett, Stephen King, and Mary Reid. The IRSP served as the political wing of the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) and both Plunkett, the party’s one-time general secretary, and King had fled Ireland to escape arms charges connected to paramilitary activity. Reid was the intellectual of the group and spent her time in Paris reading, writing, promoting the republican cause and raising her son, Cathal. The group’s activism brought them into contact with a broad range of revolutionaries including members of the notorious Red Army Faction from Germany, activists from Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement and, fatefully, a young freelance journalist named Bernard Jégat.

Freelance journalist Bernard Jégat. Photo: William Stevens/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

It was Jégat who first drew the attention of the new anti-terrorist cell to the Paris branch of the IRSP. A long-time supporter of the Irish republican cause, he knew of the group's contacts with Palestinians and suspected that they were involved in the Goldberg attack. Jégat recounted his theory to the editor of the leading left-wing magazine, Le Nouvel Observateur. Instead of fact-checking his account for publication, the editor passed on Jégat’s details to the presidential palace.

Jégat was called in for interview by Captain Paul Barril of the anti-terrorist cell, to whom he handed over a small cache of arms that Plunkett had allegedly given to him for safe-keeping. On August 28th, the cell raided the apartment where the Irish republicans lived in the suburb of Vincennes, discovering three pistols and a small amount of explosive material. The three activists were arrested and Reid’s son was taken into care.

Captain Paul Barril. Photo: Jean-Michel TURPIN/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

From the outset, the police investigation was compromised by numerous breaches of procedure. Contrary to French law, the suspects and a member of the judicial police were not present when the search took place. The integrity of the crime scene was repeatedly compromised and no fingerprints were lifted from the pistols. The legal statement detailing the operation was signed by an officer who was not present throughout the proceedings.  

Plunkett, King, and Reid highlighted these irregularities, alleging that the weapons had been planted in their absence in an effort to frame them. This was dismissed by the police and by politicians close to the president. The arrests were announced with great fanfare, with Mitterrand’s supporters citing them as evidence that the Left was just as capable of capturing terrorists as their right-wing rivals.

In the months that followed, the investigative press began to raise doubts about the case presented against the "Irish of Vincennes". The official narrative unravelled as revelation after revelation about the incompetence and the deceit at the heart of the investigation was exposed.

Mary Reid, Michael Plunkett and Stephen King in their apartment in October 1983. Photo: John van Hasselt/Corbis via Getty Images

Although the president's office continued to defend the original version of the story, it soon became clear that Barril and his team had planted the evidence in the apartment during the search operation. The legal documentation had been falsified and the suspects’ constitutional rights completely violated. The authorities had no choice but to release the three. On May 20th 1983, nine months after their arrest, Plunkett, King, and Reid were released from prison, with the latter finally reunited with her son.

In the political scandal that followed, Mitterrand's politicisation of the police force was heavily criticised. Not only did the whole affair expose the dark inner workings of his presidency, but it also bred serious hostility between the administration and the investigative press. Commander Le Beau, the police officer nominally in charge of the search in the apartment, agreed to take the fall for the others involved in the botched investigation on the naive understanding that the president would protect him. Le Beau was sent to prison for one year, the only person to serve time for their part in orchestrating the cover-up.

Lieutenant-Colonel Jean-Michel Beau. Photo: Philippe Le Tellier/Getty Images

Once released, Plunkett, King and Reid set about suing those newspapers who had described them as terrorists, with varying degrees of success. Their efforts to secure political asylum in France failed, but the Irish government, eager not to further complicate the situation for Mitterrand, did not demand their extradition. They all eventually returned to Ireland, with Reid going on to have an illustrious career as a medieval historian.

The real perpetrators of the attack went unpunished. It was only in 2018 that a senior official admitted that the police authorities had made a pact in 1982 with the Palestinian group Abou Nidal who were responsible for the atrocity. They would not be prosecuted if they agreed not to stage future attacks on French territory. This, of course, left the police free to continue their pursuit of the three Irish citizens.

The scandal of the "Irish of Vincennes" was just the first of many examples of presidential overreach under Mitterrand. His subsequent approval of illegal phone-taps on journalists and the 1985 bombing of the Greenpeace boat Rainbow Warrior proved far more damaging to his reputation. But the case of Plunkett, King and Reid marked the end of the Mitterrand honeymoon and set the tone for the bitter relationship between investigative journalists and the President for whom many of them had campaigned.

It also highlighted how Irish citizens were readily identified as potential terrorists in the era of the Troubles. In Britain, this led to the imprisonment of a number of wholly innocent people for attacks perpetrated by Irish republican paramilitaries. In France, it allowed the authorities to frame republican activists, who may well have been involved in political violence, for crimes they definitely did not commit.  

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ