Last passage to India for boat that has become an 'ecological wreck'

The SS France, once the epitome of Gallic glamour, is nearing her end, hauled behind a tugboat to the breaker's yard. But Greenpeace is not allowing her to go quietly
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Somewhere in the Indian Ocean, a vast ship is slowly heading west. It is not travelling under its own power - its engines have long fallen silent - but is being slowly tugged across the waves on its way towards the scrapyard.

But this is not just another rusting hulk of a cargo ship. Even now, in its forlorn state, the long sleek lines mark it out as a ship of an altogether different class. And, to a shipping enthusiast, the distinctive winged funnels are instantly recognisable. This is the SS France, last of the great ocean-going liners.

The decks that were once the haunt of Cary Grant and Salvador Dali lie empty. The restaurant that was described as "the best French restaurant in the world" has been left to the echoes and the memories. This is the final voyage of the ship that was once the epitome of glamour and nautical prestige.

Her destination is very different from the gala receptions that once greeted the France in New York. She is heading for the great shipbreaking yards of Alang in the Indian state of Gujarat, a place of Victorian squalor, where hundreds of workers will swarm over her, breaking her up piece by piece, tearing out the grand sweeping staircase that led down to the restaurant, ripping up the longest bar on any ship, and finally cutting through her hull with oxyacetylene burners. And all for just £1 a day.

Because, on her final voyage, France is sailing into the middle of controversy over the dangers of shipbreaking in developing countries. Greenpeace is demanding the ship be turned away from Alang because she is full of poisonous asbestos and the shipyards there do not have the facilities to handle it safely. Most of the workers don't have shoes, let alone protective gear.

It was all very different back in the early Sixties, when the France was the acme of chic. On her maiden voyage in 1962, the smart set of Paris relocated to her decks. Everyone who was anyone was on board. And when she sailed into New York after crossing the Atlantic, the France was surrounded by fireboats, tugboats and tenders, all spraying water in the air in salute.

It was a more glamorous way of arriving in New York than standing in line at JFK passport control. But it was a more glamorous age: when the France arrived, four other liners were already docked on the Hudson.

Cary Grant used to lounge on the sundecks between films. Dali brought his pet ocelot on board. Perhaps the most famous passenger was the Mona Lisa. When the Louvre lent the painting to an exhibition in the US, the France was chosen to take it there.

Dali's ocelot was not the only pet on board. The France was famous for the facilities it offered for passengers' pet dogs. On-board kennels were carpeted, the animals had a walkway, and a choice between a Parisian milestone or a New York hydrant for them to cock their legs against.

No wood was allowed on the France because of fire regulations. So the designers dreamt up a modernist interior of aluminium, formica and plastic. There was a 660-seat theatre and two swimming pools. And this was not some meandering cruise ship, but a liner built for speed, to cross the Atlantic in the fastest time possible. In her heyday she could cruise at 31 knots, all 66,348 tons of her.

Today the France, or the SS Blue Lady as she has been renamed, is heading into a different world. The beach at Alang stretches on for six miles, an expanse of oil-stained sand littered with the skeletons of ships that are slowly being dismembered, picked over by thousands of Indians. Alang has been compared to the shipbuilding yards of Victorian England, where workers toiled in grisly conditions. There are 40,000 workers at Alang, and few safety regulations. Most work barefoot, despite the risk from the heavy steel plates being cut. Many have lost limbs, many have been killed. But there is no shortage of takers for the £1 a day wage.

It was the cheap labour and lax safety laws that allowed India and other developing countries to take over the shipbreaking industry. Today, they completely dominate it - shipbreaking is worth £270m a year to India.

But now that industry is at risk from environmentalists who demand that it adopts better safety precautions. In a major victory for the eco-lobby earlier this year, the French government was forced to recall the Clemenceau, a decommissioned aircraft carrier heading for Alang, as she was carrying asbestos. Now Greenpeace is demanding that France's most famous liner be turned back as well.

The France was a product of the age before mass air travel, born out of French pride. At the time, liners were the preferred way of crossing the Atlantic between the United States and Europe. The Americans had the fastest, the United States. The British had the largest, the Queen Elizabeth. France's two liners were nearing the end of service, and the French shipping line needed something to compete. And so they built the 1,035ft France which, until the recent arrival of the Queen Mary 2, was the longest passenger ship built.

The France's tragedy was to arrive too late. Even at that reception in New York for her maiden voyage, aircraft were wheeling overhead. And within a few years, air travel would turn the liners into a thing of the past.

The France's decline was long and slow. By 1972 she was one of only four transatlantic liners still in service. Built for the cold winds of the north, she quickly found herself on winter cruises she was not designed for, with one swimming pool indoors and the other covered up. She went on a world cruise - and had to sail around South America because she was too big for the Panama Canal.

In the end, it was another project of national pride that finished her off. In 1974 the French government ended the subsidy that had kept her afloat and diverted the money to Concorde.

For three years the ship lay idle in harbour. In 1977, she was bought by a Saudi millionaire who wanted to turn her into a museum for French furniture, but the plan never got off the drawing board. In 1979, she was bought by Norwegian Caribbean Lines, one of the biggest companies tapping into the large new market for cruises.

The France was converted into a cruise ship and, in a cruel blow to the national pride that spawned her, renamed SS Norway. The cruise company tore out the second engine room that gave the France her speed, and turned her into a plodding cruise ship. The tourist class smoking room was replaced with a casino, and the first class library with shops.

She continued to sail through the Eighties and Nineties, but, by the beginning of this decade, cutbacks in maintenance meant the Norway was suffering frequent mechanical breakdowns and fires. There were incidents of illegal dumping of waste and sea, and at one point the ship was detained in port for safety violations. It was a sad senescence.

Worse was to come. In May 2003, while the Norway was docked in Miami, an explosion rocked the engine room. Several crew members were killed. The ship was towed to Germany for repairs. But in March 2004, the chief executive of the cruise company announced: "France will never sail again." The ship was sent to Malaysia and sold to an American dealer for scrap. She was renamed once again, the Blue Lady, and for months lay at anchor off the Malaysian coast.

Fans campaigned to keep her afloat, but now even they are beginning to give up. "Sadly, there are so many things stacked against her at the moment that there is little hope for a future where she can be at sea where she belongs," says Devon Scott, the ship's former historian, and head of the Norway Preservation Foundation. Now the Blue Lady is heading for the scrapyards - although, in the hope of a late buyer, the owners are still offering her for sale on the internet - a bargain at $24m (£12.7m).

But the story is far from over. She was supposed to be going to the yards at Chittagong, in Bangladesh, one of Alang's main competitors, until the government there decided she would not be allowed in because of the asbestos threat. Now environmentalists are demanding she is turned away from India as well.

Alang has no equipment or procedures to handle asbestos safely. Earlier this year, Greenpeace campaigned against the Clemenceau being allowed in. India's Supreme Court ordered her to wait outside Indian territorial waters while it examined the case, but the French government caved in and ordered her back to France before the court reached a decision.

Greenpeace says the France contains even more asbestos, as well as other toxic substances that Alang is not equipped to deal with. "We have a general concern that there are toxic substances on board and that workers would be exposed to these substances," said Eco Matser, a representative of Greenpeace. "The ship should be decontaminated before it is sent to Asia."

But even as environmentalists campaign to keep her out, they are facing a backlash from the yards, who say a ban risks destroying their business - and with it, thousands of jobs.

There is a growing movement in Europe to prevent ships laden with toxic substances from sailing to the developing world to be broken up until they have first been decontaminated. But with this creating renewed business for shipbreakers in Europe, their counterparts in India fear they may lose the business they once took from them. Once the ships are being decontaminated in Europe, they fear owners will find it more economical to have the whole job done there.

There are growing calls in India for the yards of Alang to be modernised and fitted out safely. And so the last hope to preserve the SS France, once an icon of French glamour, may hinge on its being turned away from an Indian yard because it is full of toxic waste. Or, then again, someone may come up with $24m.

One of the last great ocean liners

* SS France was launched in May 1960. At 1,035ft she was the longest ocean liner in the world.

* Her construction cost $80m and took over four years. A unique design allowed the 66,348 tons ship to carry enough fuel to make the return journey from Le Havre to New York without refuelling.

* Up to 1,944 passengers were accommodated in the lap of luxury, served by 1,100 crew, including over 100 chefs.

* She was built to make 46 transatlantic crossings per year but the rise of air travel caused a declining demand for the service.

* The premier on-board restaurant was said to be 'the best French restaurant in the world'.

* She made her first world voyage in 1974 but had to sail around the coast of South America because she was too large for the locks of the Panama Canal.

* In 1974 the French government withdrew its subsidy and SS France left service. Sold to Norwegian Caribbean Line in 1979 and renamed SS Norway, she sparked a trend for larger cruise ships.

* President Charles de Gaulle was a driving force behind the ship's construction. He hopedshe would be a source of Gallic pride and a showcase for French technology.