SS France - Trans Atlantic Service and Cruises

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SS France photographed on a westbound run at about 4 PM on September 14th 1969 by Donald Stoltenberg.

The France's maiden voyage to New York took place on 3rd February 1962, with many of France's film stars and aristocracy aboard.

On 14th December 1962, the France carried the Mona Lisa from Le Havre to New York, where the painting was to embark on an American tour.

From the 13th July to 26th July 1967, the France docked at the Ile Notre-Dame in Montreal, acting as a secondary French pavilion at the 1967 World’s Fair Expo 67.

She sailed the North Atlantic run between Le Havre and New York for thirteen years. However, by the beginning of the 1970s jet travel was by far more popular than ship travel, and the costs of fuel was ever increasing. The France, which had always relied on subsidies from the French government, was forced to take advantage of these more and more.

Using the ship's versatile design to its full potential, the CGT began to send the France on more cruises during the winter, which was off-season for the Atlantic trade. One design flaw, however, was revealed when the ship reached warmer waters: her two swimming pools, one each for first and tourist class, were both indoors; the first class pool deep within the ship's hull, and the tourist class pool on an upper deck, but covered with an immovable glass dome. The latter, perhaps, was the more aggravating in hot weather. She also had limited outdoor deck space, with much of what was available protected behind thick glass wind-screens; useful on the North Atlantic, but frustrating when blocking cooling breezes in the tropics. (The Queen Elizabeth 2 suffered from a similar design flaw as well.)

SS France on a Trans-Atlantic Crossing in heavy swells (Screendump from old film).†

Nonetheless, the France's cruises were popular, and her first world cruise took place in 1972. Too large to traverse the Panama andSuez Canals, she was forced to sail around Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope. That same year, with the destruction of the Seawise University (former RMS Queen Elizabeth) by fire in Hong Kong, the France became the largest passenger ship in the world in service.

Still, as the opening years of the decade progressed, the cruise market expanded, seeing the construction of smaller, purpose built cruise ships which could also fit through the Panama Canal. Worse, in 1973 theOil Crisis hit and the price of oil went from $3 US to $12 US per barrel. When the French government, at the end of the Trente Glorieuses realized that keeping the France running would necessitate an additional ten million dollars a year, they opted instead to subsidize the then developing Concorde. Without this government money, the French Line could not operate, and with a press release issued in 1974 it was announced that the France would be withdrawn from service on the 25th October that year.

At that, the crew decided to take matters into their own hands: an eastbound crossing on the 6th September, her 202nd crossing, was delayed several hours while the crew met to decide whether to strike then and there, in New York, or six days later outside Le Havre; Le Havre won, and the ship was commandeered by a group of French trade unionists who anchored the France in the entrance to the port, thereby blocking all incoming and outgoing traffic. The 1200 passengers aboard had to be ferried to shore on tenders, while approximately 800 of the crew remained aboard. The hijackers demanded that the ship be allowed to continue to serve, along with a 35% wage increase for themselves. However, their mission failed, and the night of the hijacking proved to be the ship's last day of service for the CGT. It took over a month for the stand-off to end, and by the 7th December 1974, the ship was moored at a distant quay in Le Havre, known colloquially as the quai de l'oubli - the pier of the forgotten.

By that time the France had completed 377 crossing and 93 cruises (including 2 world cruises), carried a total of 588,024 passengers on trans-Atlantic crossings, and 113,862 passengers on cruises, and had sailed a total of 1,860,000 nautical miles.

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SS France Noel Caribe Cruise, December 1970. (Private collection).†

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