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