The Pride of a Nation: Luxury liner that's set to sail once more

The splendour of SS France is celebrated in a new exhibition as plans to build a successor forge ahead. John Lichfield reports

France was sold off to a Saudi businessman for £8m in 1977.

France was eventually dismantled in India and sold for scrap and souvenirs in 2007 and 2008. Francophobes need not rejoice. We are speaking not of "la" France but of "le" France. We are speaking of the SS France, which was once the pride and joy of all France. We are speaking of the "France" that was once the longest ocean liner in the world, longer than the Eiffel Tower is tall.

We are speaking of a mythical ship which briefly plied the Atlantic stuffed with French objets d'art. That "France", launched by the wife of President Charles de Gaulle in 1960, was for a decade the emblem of France's post-war revival. It symbolised the "30 glorious years" from 1945 to 1975, during which France recovered from defeat, occupation and liberation to economic success and renewed self-confidence.

The SS France, much longer than the Titanic, eventually hit the twin icebergs of an oil crisis and a boom in transatlantic air travel. Its sale, and reincarnation as the cruise ship Norway, became emblematic of the economic difficulties which beset France. There were strikes aboard "Le France" and even a 23-day mutiny off the port of Le Havre in 1975 to try to prevent the ship being sold abroad.

SS France became the first ocean liner to top the pop charts. A record, by Michel Sardou, protesting against the "betrayal" of the ship by politicians, sold 500,000 copies in two weeks in May 1975.

For the next eight months, visitors to Paris can take a nostalgic voyage aboard the liner to the angular style and garish colours of the Sixties and Seventies. The Musée de la Marine (naval museum) at Tocadéro has assembled 860 objects which once belonged to the France, from squat, beige chairs, which graced the first class lounge, to the six-feet high, neon letters spelling out the liner's name, which stood on the upper deck.

The exhibition – a marvellous recreation of an era as well as a ship – coincides with an ambitious attempt to launch a France II. French businessman Didier Spade, grandson of one of the interior designers of the original ship, has commissioned a feasibility study with the Chantiers de L'Atlantique in Saint-Nazaire, the birthplace of giant ocean liners including Cunard's recent Queen Mary 2. A preliminary design shows a futuristic ship which pays homage to the celebrated raked, red and black funnels of SS France. A closer look reveals the giant "funnels" are ocean-going tower blocks, which will – if the ship is ever built – contain clubs and restaurants and luxury suites. Mr Spade, who runs the Paris Yacht Marina, is appealing for €300m in private funding to build the new ship by 2015.

Apart from a few toasters and freezers, every object in the old liner was French. "The ship was conceived as a showpiece for the industrial and artistic achievements of France," Mr Spade said. "The new ship would also be a shop window for 21st century France."

The old SS France could take 2,000 passengers. The new liner would be restricted to 500 people, paying between €2,000 and €7,000 a week to cruise through the Caribbean or Mediterranean. The old ship was launched at the low tide of the age of great ocean liners, which started in the early 20th century. The new cruise liner, Mr Spade believes, could catch a rising tide of demand for upmarket cruise holidays. The French designer Philippe Starck, writing in the catalogue of the exhibition, marvels at the "senseless" optimism which allowed the first liner to be built at all.

"To construct an ocean liner in the Sixties was a poetic act, something heroically pointless," he said. And yet the sheer, modernist beauty of SS France – swimming in aluminium and vinyl, decorated with prints by Picasso, Dufy and Braque – achieved, he said, "the rare feat of making every French person proud at the same time".

The first ship was a state project. The shipping line, the Compagnié Générale Transatlantique, was state-owned. The French government offered to pay 20 per cent of the cost of the ship if it was built, and equipped, in France. At its launch in Saint-Nazaire in 1960, President de Gaulle made a speech which played with the fact that only the gender of the definite article – "le" or "la" – distinguished the ship from the nation. He ended his speech: "Vive le France, vive la France."

When the ship entered service in 1962, it was the longest (315m) and fastest liner ever built. It cut the transatlantic voyage to five days. It became briefly popular with the wealthy and famous, largely because of its reputation for having better cuisine than its rivals (the first Queen Elizabeth and SS United States). Passengers included Salvador Dali, Audrey Hepburn, the Beatles and the Mona Lisa, on her way to exhibitions in Washington and New York in 1962.

In its 13-year career, the ship became known as the best French restaurant in the world. A dinner menu from 1973 displayed in the Paris exhibition lists ten courses, including hors d'oeuvre, soup, scrambled eggs, trout, ballotine de dindonneau (stuffed baby turkey breasts), salad, cheese, two desserts and fruit. There was even a gourmet menu for pets.

Unfortunately, the boom in oil prices, the development of large, economical jets like the Boeing 707 and the launch of a faster rival, Cunard's Queen Elizabeth 2, in 1969, turned France's pride and joy into an economic liability. In 1974, the new government of President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing and Prime Minister Jacques Chirac abandoned an electoral pledge and withdrew all state subsidies to the ship. There were crew strikes, passenger sit-ins and a mutiny off Le Havre in which the seamen's unions took over "France" and (playing with the name again) appointed a rival cabinet and prime minister.

But the liner was sold to a Saudi businessman in 1977, who rapidly sold it to a Norwegian cruise company. As Norway, the ship had a successful second life until a boiler explosion in Miami in 2003, compounded by storm damage while it was being repaired in Bremerhaven.

The liner was sold for scrap and, after a series of legal battles, was finally dismantled in India in 2007 and 2008.

Scores of items rescued from the carcass of the ship were sold at auction in Paris in February 2009. They included the elegant prow, sold for €273,000, which now stands, far from the waves it once defied, outside Mr Spade's marina in Paris.

He says it inspires him to forge ahead with plans for a France II. "I may be a freshwater sailor," Mr Spade said, "but I've never started a project, which I have not completed."

Ships ahoy

Queen Elizabeth 2

The QE2 was known as the last of the great transatlantic cruise liners. It first set sail in 1969 and was one of the fastest passenger ships ever built. After more than 40 years at sea, it is now permanently docked in Dubai.

RMS Titanic

The largest passenger steamship in the world first set sail in 1912. It hit an iceberg after four days at sea and sank, dragging 1,517 people down with it.

MS Oasis of the Seas

Officially the largest cruise liner in the world, the 6,000-passenger ship completed its maiden voyage in 2009.

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