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The fabulous France of 1962

The SS. France was launched at the Saint Nazaire shipyard on May 11th, 1960. As over a thousand feet of gleaming, pristine new ocean liner slid slowly down the ways, a human tidal wave of something like 100,000 people surged forward, cheering the looming bulk of the immense vessel as she gathered way.

As she kissed the water for the first time, French President Charles De Gaulle took the microphone out of the hand of his wife, Yvonne. Madame De Gaulle had served as godmother to the new ship, christening her with the traditional champagne bottle. From his lofty perch high above the hordes below, the President shouted exultantly to the crowd;

I have given you a new Normandie!”

That bit of fatuous, self serving bombast would become a millstone around the metaphorical neck of the last great French liner. Even invoking the hallowed memory of the illustrious Normandie- lost in a tragic fire at New York in February of 1942-was to offer a promise on such a spectacular scale that any ship would have struggled to even begin to meet it.

From Day One, the new SS. France would have to fulfil the nostalgic expectations of an emotional travelling public, and also somehow beat the rising tide of jet air travel. The latter had already secured more than seventy per cent of all Atlantic travellers by the time she made her debut in February of 1962. France would be expected to reach, and then maintain, an almost Olympian level of excellence and luxe, and do so in the face of the direst set of financial circumstances imaginable. Not only that, but she was expected to do it with all the style, elegance and grace for which the French Line had become an almost century old byword.

No pressure there, then…..

The Normandie at speed on the Atlantic in her late 1930’s heyday

So, how similar was the new challenger to the imperishable legend of her deceased forebear? The France was a few feet longer than the Normandie (in fact, she was the longest liner ever built until the 2004 debut of the Queen Mary 2) and she was faster by a few knots, too. Despite that, there would be no attempt to challenge the SS. United States for the Blue Ribband of The Atlantic. If the Normandie had been hell bent on achieving that singular honour back in 1935, then the France eschewed even the very idea with a typically Gallic shrug less than three decades later. With the jets flying overhead at more than five hundred miles an hour, the days of thirty knot record ocean crossings looked positively prehistoric by 1962.

Externally, the France was much more of a respectful nod to her predecessor. The great, flared bow and soaring, tapered flanks made her every bit as visually bewitching as the Normandie had ever been, though the cruiser stern was a direct contrast to the knuckled counter stern of the earlier ship. She looked longer, slightly leaner, too. And, partly because of the use of aluminium in constructing her superstructure, the France came in at a little over 66,000 tons, compared to just over 83,000 tons for the Normandie.

Where Normandie had been a three class ship, the France catered to just two; First and Tourist. And, even though she was the lighter ship by a not inconsiderable 17,000 tons, the France could still carry a similar passenger total to Normandie of about 1900 in all, and in very considerable, air conditioned comfort.

Of course, the decor of her public rooms was an epic swerve away from those of the earlier ship. If the Normandie had been a true temple of seagoing Art Deco, then the France was a modern, almost severe exemplar of Sixties styling that verged on the sterile in many places. Plush and luxurious as she was, her overall design aesthetic was strictly, almost glacially trendy. In terms of decor, she never, ever gained the rave reviews that were showered like confetti on the Normandie in her prime.

Where the France did gain wild acclaim-and right from the start at that-was for the sheer excellence and quality of the food and service on board across both classes. The French Line had always enjoyed a stellar reputation in both respects; in fact, the company was widely considered to offer the best hospitality of any of the Atlantic liner fleets. And, in that respect, the France was right up there with every single one of her predecessors, the Normandie included. From first to last, her standards of on board cosseting and catering were simply sublime, and easily the best to be found on any liner in those last, waning years of regular ocean crossings.

Like the Normandie, the France was a hideously expensive ship to operate. At full speed on the Atlantic, she guzzled the increasingly expensive Bunker C crude oil fuel like so much cheap table wine. By the time of the OPEC oil crisis of 1973 that ultimately doomed her, she was costing the French Line (and, by extension the French taxpayers who stumped up for her) around a million dollars a day just for fuel alone.

At the time, she was still sailing at around eighty per cent passenger occupancy, itself a remarkable achievement, and a telling testament to the sheer excellence and quality of the ship. Despite this, the revenue realised from each trip was still massively overshadowed by her stratospheric fuel bills. Faced with the double whammy of fast, cheap jet travel and soaring fuel prices, she never really ever stood a chance.

This was the backdrop to the twelve year career of the SS. France; it found an astonishing parallel in the pre-war career of the Normandie, when the increasingly bellicose, unhinged sabre rattling of both Hitler and Mussolini did so much to create an air of unease, one that hung over the age of 1930’s Atlantic travel like so much poisonous fog. For all of their glamour and finesse, both Normandie and France would sail on increasingly troubled waters. Fate itself always seemed to be against both of them.

But they did differ in one massive, hugely emotional respect. For, while Normandie would die violently (and needlessly) in the middle of New York harbour, the France would be resurrected after a long, lonely five year lay up in her home port of Le Havre. Brought back to life as the SS. Norway in an unparalleled $118 million dollar refit over the winter and spring of 1979-80, she became the world’s first true mega cruise ship. And against every set of odds in the book, she would become a legend for the second time in her career.

Ironically, one of the things that made the Norway-ex-France so successful was her dramatic interior transformation. All of the chrome, plastic, laminate and veneers that had once erupted across her public rooms was dumped unceremoniously into shore side skips. In their place came a glorious sweep of Art Deco luxe that, taken collectively, made her the most elegant, opulent ship anywhere afloat.

The result was what I often used to call ‘three martini syndrome’; passengers on board the reborn Norway, softened up with premium booze, suffused in Art Deco splendour, and usually serenaded by a fifteen piece orchestra playing Glenn Miller standouts, would often be heard to refer to Norway as ‘the Normandie’. It wasn’t hard to see why; people simply fell (or stumbled) through that Art Deco shaped looking glass, and thought themselves denizens of another ship, in another time. It was wistful, kind of endearing, and often downright funny. And, in that way, Norway- the revived former France- tipped her metaphorical hat to her doomed, divine predecessor one last, respectful time.

But, make no mistake; France was not the ‘second Normandie’. She didn’t need to be. The ship had breathtaking panache, and a dazzling, charismatic vibe that was truly all her own. As the Norway (and, indeed, as the France) she was a stunning, sensational statement of intent in her own right. Wrought large in steel, wood and matchless splendour, she was every bit as much of an awe inspiring seagoing cathedral as ever the Normandie was.

And, just like the Normandie, she, too has now become an adored, lost legend. A ship sometimes hyped to the heavens for sure, but one that still has, in her own way, no true equal, either real or imagined. While there is much symbiosis between those two sublime maritime creations, Normandie and France -and, indeed, the reborn Norway- each crafted their own, imperishable legends. And that, in the final analysis, is how they will be defined, both by time and tide.

Incidentally, that’s also exactly as it should be, too.



The France at speed on her trails. Only the SS United States proved to be faster

“I have given you a new Normandie!”

General-turned-President Charles De Gaulle’s expansive, extravagant claim was lapped up by the more than one hundred thousand strong crowd that had just witnessed the launch of the new SS. France at the Penhoet shipyard at Saint Nazaire. But even such a suave, bombastic claim came second place to the leviathan that had just been baptised in front of them.

Minutes before, at 4.15 pm on the afternoon of May 11th, 1960, Madame Yvonne De Gaulle had swung a bottle of champagne at the soaring mass of black steel that loomed above her head in the late afternoon spring sunshine. There was a moment’s silence, and then an awesome steel cathedral, some one thousand and thirty five feet long, began her slow, stately procession down to the steel grey waters of the River Loire. A huge cheer floated up from the crowd that blackened the slipways on either side of the great new liner as her stern kissed water for the first time, with literally thousands of tons of hissing, shrieking and clanking steel chains taking up the strain in a desperate attempt to stop the huge liner from careering straight across the river. From the loudspeakers above, the proud, defiant swagger of La Marseiiliaise filled the air.

Naturally, the France had first been blessed by Monsieur Villepelet, the Bishop of Nantes, just prior to her launch. And the new liner would need all the divine intervention she could get.

Since she had been laid down just two years earlier in 1958, the Atlantic liners had already lost something like seventy per cent of the travelling trade to the speedy new jet airliners. The France was already playing against a stacked deck from day one.

She had been built as a single ship replacement for the veteran, post war duo of Ile De France and Liberte. Originally, the idea was to replace those fabled liners with a pair of modern vessels, each of a more modest 35,000 tons, that would not have been dissimilar in scale and intent to the more recent vessels built by the Italian Line.

But De Gaulle personally decided that French international prestige- dramatically on the wane since the military loss of Vietnam and the blood bath of Algeria- was in desperate need of a new, national icon. A second Normandie, as De Gaulle himself said. So the eminently sensible idea for two smaller, modern sisters was torpedoed in favour of one stunning exclamation mark of a vessel; a true show stopper that would be one final, magnificent burst of bravado in the face of the Jet Age.

And what a show stopper she was. The France was the longest ocean liner ever built up to that time. In fact, she would retain that honour until the advent Of the Queen Mary 2 from the self same shipyard in 2003. At her ultimate 66,348 tons, she was eclipsed only by the ageing Cunard Queens in terms of size.

Speed wise, she was-and is- second only to the SS United States. On trials, the France managed over thirty-five knots with relative ease. But there was no thought of running for the speed record; with the jets thundering overhead at five hundred miles an hour and more, it was seen as an empty gesture.

What she remains is the last true express liner built for the age old route between Northern Europe and America. The France was meant to make some thirty-four round trips a year between Le Havre and New York, with no concession whatsoever to a regular cruise schedule. Indeed, her beam of 110 feet made her too wide to pass through the Panama Canal.

This last, potentially disastrous flaw was shrugged off by De Gaulle with his usual Machiavellian flair. The problem was not that the France was too big, he said; it was that the canal was too small.

Her show stopping maiden voyage would not occur until February of 1962, some twenty one months in the future. When the marvellous, majestic bulk of the France slipped gracefully into the Loire on May 11th, 1960, a lot was riding on her, both figuratively and actually. It is safe to say that every major shipping line followed her progress with a mixture of vague hope and more than a little unease.