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French put on their best dress


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The mighty Charles de Gaulle. A French aircraft carrier. It is the largest warship in Western Europe, twice as large as Britain's aircraft carriers, and larger than helicopter carrier HMS Ocean, Britain's largest warship. However, it is the only aircraft carrier that France has (compared to Britain's three aircraft carriers + the helicopter carrier) and has a tendency to break down.

French put on their best dress, despite mutterings below deck

By Alan Hamilton

Our correspondent on the Charles de Gaulle tests knowledge of French naval victories (and there aren't many)

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Crew from the French aircraft carrier the Charles de Gaulle prepare to be inspected by the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh on the flight deck in Portsmouth (PAUL ROGERS)

IT WAS good of the losers to turn up; you’d think they’d prefer to forget defeat. But if they were going to come at all, they were going to make a show of it.

The French had the biggest foreign contingent and the largest ship at yesterday’s fleet review, six vessels led by the Charles de Gaulle, a gargantuan, nuclear-powered aircraft carrier of 42,000 tonnes, twice as big as anything the Royal Navy possesses, and with a flight deck 857ft (261m) long.

Vice-Admiral Jacques Mazars, the most senior officer on board, said: “If you are invited to your cousin’s wedding you wear your best dress; that’s what we have done.”

He added that he was happy to be commemorating France’s old adversary Nelson while at the same time “celebrating the great brotherhood of the sea. We do not have an equivalent hero to Nelson because there is no English admiral in the French Navy,” the Vice-Admiral joked to The Times in a small conference room deep in the bowels of this behemoth. He conceded that Nelson was a great man and a great admiral, if only because: “he took account of all the skills of his adversary Admiral Villeneuve.”

Naturally the Commander of the joint French-Spanish force that faced Nelson “could be a great man also. We know from his letters that he was not in good shape to take on the British Navy, but he still put to sea.”

Fair enough, Vice-Admiral, but you cannot escape the fact that Villeneuve was defeated.

“Navy people are lucky in the UK because they were the first service and so to win a battle like Trafalgar was very important to them. Bu for the French it was not so important and it didn’t worry Napoleon because he was much more land-minded. Remember that in the same year as Trafalgar he won the Battle of Austerlitz.”

Perhaps that is why there are so few admirals who are French national heroes, apart perhaps from de Grasse, who defeated the Royal Navy at Chesapeake Bay in 1781 and opened the way to victory for George Washington, and the grander named Pierre André de Suffren de Saint Tropez, who caused us a lot of bother in the Indian Ocean in the late 18th century.

The Vice-Admiral was anxious to emphasise that the presence of six French ships at a Trafalgar celebration was less about history than about present-day co-operation between allied navies. There were, however, mutterings from below decks that it was a strange thing to be doing.

Ensign Stéphane Lombardo, one of the carrier’s fighter pilots, said: “Given the choice, half the crew would not have come to a celebration of a French defeat.”

In the captain’s cabin Xavier Magne, commanding officer of the Charles de Gaulle, expressed pride in his warship, the biggest in Western Europe. “We can go without refuelling for seven years,” he boasted. Ah, but does that include the Chablis? “Mais oui,” said the captain. “I can always pick up wine from replenishment ships.” No Chablis, but a perfectly acceptable carafe of rosé was served in the junior officers’ mess with an excellent lunch of asparagus, pork casserole and an extensive cheese board. The only obvious concession to Nato integration was a bottle of Heinz tomato ketchup.

Captain Magne heads a crew of 1,900 officers, men and women, of whom the latter constitutes 10 per cent of the total. “When men are alone they just grunt and talk football. When there are females onboard — and we even have one woman fighter pilot — they smile and make an effort.”

For an unofficial view on the women we took Lieutenant David Pret aside. “You can have relationships onboard, but not while you’re working, and you cannot share a cabin. You can invite a girl for a drink in the mess; yes, of course you can drink but you cannot get drunk or you will be fired.” By the way Lieutenant, can you name any famous French naval victories? His eyes darted around and he laughed nervously. “Beeeep! No comment,” he giggled.

That’ll be a non, then? The Queen then came in sight passing down the line of ships. Charles de Gaulle’s impeccably turned-out crew lined the flight deck; above their heads she was dressed with a huge tricoleur flying at her stern and the Croix de Lorraine fluttering at her bow in memory of the Free French whom de Gaulle commanded. On board the Spanish carrier Principe de Asturias, next in line, there was a sudden scramble from below decks to line up; the royal arrival appeared to have surprised them in their siesta.

As the Queen passed the Charles de Gaulle, the carrier’s small and, for once, harmless salute gun fired 21 rounds and her loudspeakers played the British National Anthem. While La Reine was still well within earshot, the band of the Royal Marines playing the Monty Python theme tune on Her Majesty’s foredeck was drowned out by the Charles de Gaulle’s high-decibel broadcast of La Marseillaise. Just a reminder 200 years on, ma’am, as to who’s got the biggest toy now.


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