DOLLARS, CRUDE OIL AND HARSH TIMES.
Story by Anthony Nicholas
As the 1970's dawned, passenger numbers on the North Atlantic continued to plummet. By that year, only four out of every hundred passengers still crossed the Atlantic by sea. The jets were unbeatable.
Even the France had started to suffer so, for the winter season, the French Line had taken to sending her on cruises, mainly to the Caribbean, but also down to Rio for the Carnival. Each spring, she resumed her place on the Le Havre to New York shuttle, taking five days for each crossing.
The France was hugely successful as a cruise ship, a role for which she had been neither intended or designed for. She had very little usable outdoor deck space, and both of her swimming pools were covered.
These major shortcomings would be addressed during her conversion into the Norway but, for now, the France was a surprising success as a cruise ship.
Still, it was on the North Atlantic that she came into her own and, even as the noose tightened, she remained a matchless, elegant ambassador for the French way of life; a magnificent, final floating display of defiant bravado in the face of the all conquering airlines.
The French Line always asserted that you were 'in France itself' the moment that you crossed her gangway. Announcements on board were only ever made in French, despite the fact that the huge bulk of her passengers were American. Table wine was always free on board, and only on the France could you have onion soup for breakfast if you wished.
In short, the liner clung to a true sense of her national identity. Her crew of over 1200 was entirely French, including the scarlet jacketed lift boys that whisked madame or monsieur to wherever they desired. God forbid that a passenger should actually have to press their own lift buttons.
But the liner was sailing on a rising tide of red accountant's ink, and only the very generous operating subsidy from the French government kept her going. But now there was new thinking among the Paris political elite as the old guard changed.....
In 1973, and again the following year, the France made stunning round the world cruises, arriving in such unfamiliar places as Cape Town, Sydney and Singapore. On each cruise, a special supply ship loaded with fresh, clean linen had to be sent to meet the France at the halfway mark; the tablecloths, bed sheets and napkins on board were of such a fine, rare quality that no foreign laborers were trusted with their cleaning. So the French shipped clean replacements half way around the planet.
The cruises were magnificent, headline making epics, but even then events in the middle east conspired to deal a fatal blow to this floating fairy tale.
OPEC increased the price for crude oil more than sixfold in 1973. The France, which guzzled the stuff like so much cheap table wine, could no longer be immune. Her crossings were lengthened to six days instead of five to conserve fuel and, in a move that shocked regular passengers to the core, the French Line actually started charging for table wine. Many said then that they knew the end was near.
The French government was faced with the stark choice of continuing to fund the joint Anglo-French Concorde program, or keeping the France. Both were unrealistic and, in 1974, the government announced the end of the $24 million dollar annual subsidy for the ship. What followed was inevitable.
The French Line announced that the SS. France would be withdrawn after her Atlantic crossing on October 25th, 1974, and put up for sale. One hundred and ten years of French tradition and excellence on the Atlantic had been guillotined by the stroke of a bureaucrat's pen. But all parties concerned reckoned without the liner's crew.....
While many of the deck and engine staff could transfer to cargo ships, the hundreds of stewards, chefs, bell boys and bar staff had nowhere to go. Unwilling to see their livelihoods disappear with the ship, they decided to act.
On the evening of September 10th, 1974, the France was approaching Le Havre at the end of an eastbound crossing. Many of the 1,266 passengers were at dinner. The orchestra was playing in the Chambord Restaurant when, almost apologetically, a steward interrupted their dining to inform the passengers that the crew were taking over the ship, and that she would be anchored across the entrance to the port until further notice. Then the stunned passengers were served their coffee and, in the best traditions of another desperate moment of ship board history, the orchestra resumed playing!
On the bridge, Captain Christian Pettre was confronted by a group of men led by Marcel Raulin, a former wartime commando and steward. Raulin informed Pettre, nicknamed 'The Pasha', that the crew were taking over the ship. Pettre asked Raulin if he was mad, but afterwards remained impassive. No doubt he sympathized completely with their motives.
The story made headlines around the world next day. The France was anchored across the entrance to Le Havre, and her huge bulk meant that no other ship could either enter or leave the port. The passengers and their luggage were taken off next day by a ferry, and both sides settled down to what amounted, in effect, to a classic Mexican stand-off.
The government blustered that they had expected anything but this; the France taken over by her own crew as if she were some common or garden factory. The crew, in no mood to compromise, proceeded to blow its own chances out of the water by demanding the retention of the France in service, plus a whopping thirty-five per cent pay rise.
In the event, it was the strikers- the French were careful not to use the word 'mutineers'- who blinked first. As the autumn weather worsened, the France was obliged to move to Cherbourg, thus no longer blocking the harbour. Supplies on board began to run out. The government simply sat back and waited.
Finally, in October, the crew voted overwhelmingly in a ballot to bring the ship into port. After a final, touching mass in the ship's chapel, the France docked in Le Havre on October 9th. Though the crew continued to picket the ship until December, the SS. France was officially stricken from service that month.
That should have been that. The liner was taken to a quiet backwater called the Quai D'Oublai- literally 'The Pier of The Forgotten', and laid up. Her furnishings were covered over and, with only a skeleton crew on board to maintain essential systems, a deathly silence settled over the great, grand France.
It hung over her like poisonous fog for five long, lonely years. As Saigon fell and Britain joined the Common Market, the France lingered in silent despair, lovingly maintained yet seemingly bound for the inevitable scrapyard. Punk rock came, Elvis left the building, and the darkened ship slipped further and further from the memory of people.
A scheme to sell her as a floating casino fell through, as did a bid from the Chinese government to use her as an accommodation ship. But that vast hull contained thousands of tons of premium grade steel, and it began to receive some most unwanted attention. Around the world, scrapyard owners sharpened their knives and fondled their cheque books.
But these gentlemen were destined to be disappointed; for the last great French liner was not destined to die after all. In early 1979 Knut Kloster, the brilliant creator of Norwegian Caribbean Lines, was desperate to acquire fresh tonnage for his quartet of sold out Caribbean cruise ships. Not willing to wait years for a new build, he embarked on a course of action that was both radical and far reaching. He decided to convert an existing ship to his standards.
Kloster went for the big top, and decided to buy a laid up Atlantic liner for the job. The premise seemed unbelievable- all four available candidates were far too big, the experts said. But Kloster pressed on.
He looked at the Italian twins, Michelangelo and Raffaello, and then at the mouldering SS. United States in Norfolk, Virginia. And finally, he came to the SS. France....
By that time, France was enduring her fifth soul destroying year in limbo. But she was in immaculate condition, lovingly maintained and, as the Norwegians quickly discovered, built to last for decades. She was the obvious candidate. But there was more to it than that.
Looking up at the still graceful, flaring bows, Kloster said of France: 'She looked down and smiled at me. I knew then that I wanted to keep her smiling for the next twenty years...'
Kloster bought France for $18 million and, in August 1979, she was renamed SS. Norway in a simple ceremony in Le Havre. On the 22nd of that month, four tugs towed the former pride of the French Line out of her home port towards Bremerhaven, Germany, for the biggest conversion in maritime history.
The atmosphere was tense. The French unions, flailing desperately around, had threatened to block the channel leading to the sea to keep the France in port. On the bridge, designate captain Torbjorn Hauge had been assigned two armed guards.
It was all fuss over nothing. Two days later, the Norway entered the dry dock, and an eight month miracle began to unfold.....
Following e-mail has also been received, detailing the mutiny on board:†
“....I was with a group of other students on the "mutiny" voyage.† All loaded onto a ferry on Friday September 12 1974.† Television cameras and some of our group on the front page of "France-Soir."† I have some memorabilia I can post but few photographs.† I have the printed "apology" from the crew.† Mainly I would like to find someone who has old clippings or photos of the event or who just wants to discuss it.
Our group was to have lunch at Chartres on Friday the 12th.† With the delays and the hold baggage still on board, our tour bus arrived at Chartres at 2 a.m.† The proprietors who were supposed to feed us a lunch were summoned and stood around the table while we ate (cold cuts) in the middle of the night.† Nobody had much appetite.† We must have been too well-fed on the France (bottle of red and white always at every table even in tourist) because the proprietors looked at us in astonishment and said "Ils mangent comme des gourmets!"† ("They pick at their food like gourmets!")††I guess they expected us to be ravenous after our†"adventure."†....”