France Presses On With Deal To Sell Two Warships To Russia
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Despite those new sanctions, France plans to go ahead with the sale of two warships to Russia. International pressure has been mounting for the contract to be canceled. But in the port town where the ships are being built, people say the contract with Moscow should be fulfilled. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley sent this report.
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: It seems like everyone in Saint-Nazaire is talking about the 400 Russian sailors who sailed into port last month. The sailors are here to train on one of the newly built warships, the Vladivostok, and then sail it home in a few months' time. In a tobacco shop on Saint-Nazaire's main square, owner Christian Saunier says he's sold the Russians American cigarettes.
CHRISTIAN SAUNIER: (Through translator) They're a lot better than the wild vodka drinkers we were expecting. They're discrete, and it's amazing how they've even picked up some French after being here for only a few weeks.
(SOUNDBITE OF SEAGULLS)
BEARDSLEY: In the port town of Saint-Nazaire, where the Loire River empties into the Atlantic Ocean, shipbuilding has been a way of life since the 19th century. Today, the town is one of the world's top builders of massive cruise ships and ferries. To keep that place, people say contracts must be honored, even retired Russian teacher Francois Chabeau, who says he avoids meeting Russians these days because they all love President Vladimir Putin, who Chabeau calls dreadful.
FRANCOIS CHABEAU: I think we must deliver the ships because we have a contract with the Russians. If we don't deliver the ships, there will not be new contracts for ships.
BEARDSLEY: What about what's happening in Ukraine?
CHABEAU: Yes, on one side, it's terrible what happens. But on the other side, we have a contract.
SAUNIER: (French spoken).
BEARDSLEY: Other townspeople, like Christian Saunier, say the ships are not the cause of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, and canceling them won't resolve the crisis. Saunier says France is the world's third-largest arms seller. And if it cancels the ships, it should also cancel all the missiles and planes it sells abroad. It's market day in Saint-Nazaire. Colorful fruits and vegetables overflow stands, and fresh seafood stairs up from icy platters. An accordion player entertains the relaxed, summertime crowd. The Russian ships are providing five years employment for about 2,500 people in Saint-Nazaire.
MARC MENAGER: (French spoken).
BEARDSLEY: Marc Menager has worked at the Saint-Nazaire shipyard for 37 years. He says, while the ship workers are more proud of the ocean liners they build, the warship contract came at a time when orders were down. Menager says the two warships will not be outfitted with weaponry or communication systems. Critics say they will be able to carry hundreds of troops and helicopters.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: (Russian spoken).
UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: (Russian spoken).
BEARDSLEY: We finally run into a couple of sunburned Russian sailors. Out of uniform and wearing shorts, they don't want to give their names or get into politics. We just carry out orders, they say. The sailors say they've been welcomed in Saint-Nazaire, and the Vladivostok is a beautiful ship.
(SOUNDBITE OF SEAGULLS)
BEARDSLEY: Down by the water, there's a ceremony going on. They're having a military ceremony in the harbor in Saint-Nazaire, in the shipyard right beside the Vladivostok, which is finished and ready to sail to Russia. Bernard Grua is one of the local people watching through the fence.
BERNARD GRUA: These people, they represent Putin's regime. And sure, it's not only frustrating but, excuse me, it's disgusting. This collaboration is a shame for France.
BEARDSLEY: Grua says the next generation will have to live with the consequences. Eleanor Beardsley. NPR News, Saint-Nazaire, France. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.