To Russia with love

Russian sailors take charge of the first French-built Mistral warship being sold to Moscow

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This report was done between 20-21 August, before France cancelled its Mistrals sale to Russia.

In northern France, Russian sailors are continuing their training aboard the Vladivostok, far from the controversy surrounding the sale.

They were said to be keeping a low profile – almost invisible. But, with the imposing Mistral-class helicopter carrier the Vladivostok in the background, Russian sailors can be seen out in force in the port of Saint-Nazaire on France’s west coast. Dressed in navy blue uniforms, dozens of young men with cropped hair bask in the sun. Some allow themselves a short nap while others take the opportunity to make a phone call home – a home thousands of miles from the shipyards on the Atlantic coast where the two Mistral warships destined for Russia are being built.

The crisis currently tearing apart eastern Ukraine and the dire warnings of a new Cold War seem far away. The August sun warms the body and only a few ripples of discontent reach the peaceful shores of Saint-Nazaire.

“We’ve already had the chance to visit the town and we were given a warm welcome. I heard talk of a protest against the sale of the Mistrals but everything has been fine for us,” a young Russian sailor tells Elena Gabrielian, a journalist on the Russian desk of FRANCE 24’s sister radio station RFI, in a low voice before walking off.

The sailors, who have been ordered not to speak to the press, are not very talkative. Local traders confirm the strict discretion of the Russians, who come to stroll in groups of five or six along Saint-Nazaire’s beach front while on evening leave.

1. The Vladivostok in the hands of Russian sailors

On the quay beside the Vladivostok, a signal sounds and the sailors rush hastily aboard the brand new ship. Only a few French tourists remain outside, surprised at being allowed so near one of the most notorious and hotly debated vessels. It is here that the 400 sailors of the Russian navy who arrived in France at the end of June have been learning to master the pride of the French shipbuilding industry.

The training programme includes instruction on the use of "pods" – motors installed under the ship’s hull, adjustable at will, that allow for greater maneuverability – and the ship’s ballast system, which allows this 199 metre-long, 32 metre-wide behemoth to access areas other vessels of this size are unable to reach.

The Vladivostok docked at Saint-Nazaire

After practical instruction aboard the Mistral, the Russian sailors return to the fenced area near their training ship, the Smolniy, moored at the entrance of the shipyard. In a few weeks, the shipyard’s gates will swing open to allow the 16,500-tonne vessel to leave Saint-Nazaire for the last time.

The delivery of the second Mistral “will depend on the attitude of Russia. Should there be sanctions, they will happen at the level of the European Council and would only apply to future contracts. We're not at that stage yet - we'll see if the Russians behave badly.”
François Hollande, Monday July 21, 2014

If François Hollande’s declarations are to be believed, the second Mistral included in the Franco-Russian contract may never make it into Russian hands. Several days after the crash of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, apparently brought down by missile fire from rebel-held territory in east Ukraine, the French President made the delivery of the Sebastopol conditional on Russia’s actions over the crisis in the former Soviet state. The issue is more pressing than ever as the pro-Moscow separatists advance towards the Ukrainian port of Mariupol, backed, according to Kiev and the West, by the Russian army.

2. ‘No Mistrals for Putin’

A simple glance at the advanced state of the Sebastopol’s construction , however, suggests that the Élysée’s warning has not yet reached Saint-Nazaire, where work continues at a cracking pace on the second Mistral promised to Russia.

“You can see that the rear part of the hull, built in Russia before being brought to France, has already been attached to the front of the vessel. It is now much more complicated to scrap the deal,” explains Bernard Grua, pointing at the silhouette of the ship rising above the tranquil waters of the Loire river as it meets the port. A businessman from Nantes, Grua is the leader of the movement to stop France selling Mistrals to the Russians.

He guides us to a small, unkempt path, sandwiched between two fenced-off areas, from which one can get the best view of the second Mistral under construction. A former sailor in the French navy, Grua is alarmed at the transfer of this sensitive technology to foreign hands and has tirelessly denounced France’s collaboration with Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

Work speeds ahead on the Sebastopol

  • The Mistral-class Sebastopol is being built in the part of the shipyard bordering the Loire.
  • The portion of the hull built in Russia, seen on the left in this image, has already been fitted to the rest of the ship.
  • Activist Bernard Grua has proposed that countries opposed to Russia make a bid to buy the Vladivostok and the Sebastopol.

“Putin’s regime is like a bicycle. It must keep advancing; if it stops, it will fall over,” says Grua, who raises the possibility of Russia using the Mistrals against the Ukrainian ports of Odessa and Mariupol.

As well as organising pro-Ukrainian rallies in the shadow of the Vladivostok – the next is scheduled for September 7 –, Grua is also involved in the “No Mistrals for Putin” social media campaign. He is such an enthusiastic activist that some in Saint-Nazaire have questioned the source of his pro-Ukrainian ardour

Edmond Huet, weapons specialist:
"The transfer of technology has already been made. France is selling a concept, an advanced technology, and its expertise. We are in the act of helping an aggressive country save years by selling them cutting-edge electronics."
3. The National Front leads the charge

The cacophony of international protests that have accompanied the delivery of the Vladivostok to Russia has in turn sparked defenders of Saint-Nazaire industry into action. Seizing the opportunity, local representatives of France’s far-right National Front (FN) have put themselves at the forefront of the movement in support of the delivery of the Mistrals to Russia.

In a bid to consolidate its electoral support among the region’s workers, Marine Le Pen’s party set up the collective “Mistral, We Win!” – a supposedly non-political organisation bringing together “distraught Nazairiens” worried by the consequences of a possible cancellation of the Franco-Russian deal.

In a bar in the working class district of Méan-Penhoët, opposite Saint-Nazaire’s shipyards, we come across a number of the organisation’s members. They are holding a meeting that rapidly turns into a three-way discussion between the FN’s three Saint-Nazaire representatives – Jean-Claude Blanchard, Gauthier Bouchet and Stéphanie Sutter – under the watch of a few local supporters who prefer to remain anonymous.

Employment in the shipyards at the heart of the storm

  • Members of the "Mistral, We Win" collective gather with local FN leader Jean-Claude Blanchard (far left), as well as the party’s local council representatives Gauthier Bouchet (third from left) and Stéphanie Sutter (second from right)
  • The issue of employment in the shipyards, where 2,500 employees and 4,000 contractors work, is the main concern for Saint-Nazaire’s officials.
  • Vessels under construction at Saint-Nazaire – like the Vladivostok – are usually paid for in installments as the work progresses.

“Saint-Nazaire residents are fully aware of the impact that cancelling the contracts would have on their families,” says Sutter. Blanchard adds that 800 jobs could be lost if construction is halted.

Convinced that threats to local employment and industry are closer to people’s concerns than distant international disputes, the FN officials have called for a rally next to the Vladivostok for September 7, at the exact same time and place of the “No Mistrals for Putin” demonstration organised by Grua.

No doubt the Russian sailors, from the deck of their brand new Mistral-class warship, will observe with curiosity the rival demonstrations taking place below, aware that the construction of the Vladivostok’s twin brother is making great strides.

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