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Russian sailors restive at Saint-Nazaire shipyards

In Saint-Nazaire, russian sailors are impatiently awaiting french government decision on the delivery of two Mistral-class helicopter carriers to Russia..
Saturday 22 November 2014

  The "Vladivostok" Mistral-class helicopter carrier in Saint-Nazaire.

Last Thursday, "Vladivostok", the first of two Mistral-class ships sold to Russia, was docked in the Joubert lock form basin while the second, the "Sevastopol", was launched "discreetly", says local newspaper "Presse Océan". Hard to be discreet when moving, in the vicinity of Saint-Nazaire, a 199-meter long ship which represents many hundreds of millions of euros to be added to the coffers of a country in an acute economic crisis, as well as a diplomatic dilemman for a french president in bad shape in opinion polls. The "discrete" manouvers could be a sign that the "Vladivostok" might set to sea very soon.

"Our superiors told us the boats will leave next week, but this is the third time that we are told that departure is imminent and yet we are still here," said a russian sailor. Among the five hundred Russian sailors present at port, two hundred should embark before November 27, as confirmed by the "Voice of Russia", which also announced the appointment of a vice-admiral to organize the transfer; but not confirmed by the Elysee Palace, which still exudes an embarrassing uncertainty ...

Putin is aware that French President does not like to take tough decisions

Persuaded to have until the end of January to make his decision, President Hollande was, untile last week, of the opinion that conditions were not appropriate in Ukraine to allow delivery of the first ship. "The terms of the contract in fact leave up to three months, until the end of January, prior to the payment of penalties, but only in case of technical problems, of which there are none," says a source privy to the sale. The agreement signed by the two governments does not mention the case of a diplomatic crisis. This rule was dictated by president Putin, who leaves the French until the end of November to make their decision. "The Russian President knows that his counterpart does not like to make tough decisions and that the budgetary situation in France does not leave much room to maneuver," says our source.

While many in the french political class, including former prime minister François Fillon, former president Nicolas Sarkozy and pro communist presidential candidate M. Mélenchon, expressed support for the delivery of the ships to Russia, Putin chose last week and the imminent parliamentary vote on french budget to dictate his ultimatum to France.

Meanwhile, on Friday 21, in Saint-Nazaire’s shipyards, russian sailors would not comment on the situation. "We put to sea when it will be our duty to do so," said Boris, 27, smoking a cigarette. One hundred sailors still live on Russian training ship "Smolny", the others being, already, on board the "Sevastopol". Until yesterday, No russian sailor was even allowed to set foot on the "Vladivostok". "It’s a beautiful ship, very comfortable and with its modern electronics it feels like a submarine," says an enthusiastic sailor.

"At first the atmosphere was great, we were able to bring our families to visit Paris and the Loire Castles. Now it is tense." According to this young soldier originally from Vladivostok, the atmosphere deteriorated due to two demonstrations which took place in the streets of Saint-Nazaire: one organized by activists opposed to the war in Ukraine and therefore to the delivery of the vessels, the second by labor unions in favor of sales that preserve the economic activities of the shipyard. In the city that lived on the the rhythm of the construction of the two Russian ships for the last two years, russian sailors are well regarded. "We do not see them in bars, they are very discrete and disciplined," commented a restaurant owner.

Between economic imperatives and a political guilty conscience, France’s president remains undecided. "Today, our women are getting impatient," said a sailor. "We are starting to get a bit fed up; it looks as if the french president is afraid of Putin, it even looks like he is afraid of everything! "

Translated by Shaffaf from Paris Match

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