REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK | Charles de Gaulle; more than meets the eye
By CHRIS CHURCH | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 9, 2016
ABOARD The CHARLES DE GAULLE — After telling my friends and colleagues I’d be embarking aboard the French aircraft carrier Charles De Gaulle, the immediate response was: “I’ve heard they are allowed to have beards, have amazing food and booze! That’s the good life, enjoy!”
And while they were right about the beards, food and booze, after spending a couple days aboard, there’s so much more going on than meets the eye.
Flying onto the French aircraft carrier, aside from its smaller size, it’s hard to notice the difference between this flattop and a U.S. one. Across the deck there are aircraft, trolleys, deck markings, catapults, arresting cables, and even sailors wearing identical jerseys to those one would see on an American aircraft carrier. Yellow jerseys direct aircraft, brown jerseys check aircraft, green jerseys check arresting gear, and red jerseys load ordnance.
There are also some key differences such as the smaller number of catapults, arresting cables and jets on the French flight deck. Possibly the biggest difference is how the French launch and recover aircraft.
“For the U.S., we can launch and recover at the same time,” said Lt. Osbaldo, an American catapult officer serving aboard the “Grand Charles.” He couldn’t be identified by his full name for security reasons.
“Here, because it’s a smaller ship, they can only do one or the other ... but they are pretty quick and pretty efficient with what they have. It’s pretty impressive.”
The aircraft themselves are different. The Dassault Rafale fighter jet is a multi-role aircraft, meaning it can conduct a variety of mission sets. These include airstrikes, reconnaissance and electronic warfare. On the U.S. side, the F/A-18 Super Hornet is primarily a fighter-bomber, while the U.S. uses other aircraft for different capabilities like the EA-6B Growler for electronic warfare.
Inside the skin of the ship, operations on Charles de Gaulle and American aircraft carriers are almost identical, albeit with small differences on some procedures. Both are nuclear-powered, have defensive measures to protect the ships, sailors are trained in damage control, sailors conduct daily “cleaning stations,” and living conditions are generally the same. Sailors work in shifts that could be anywhere from four to 12 hours, exercise, watch movies, eat and sleep. The jobs on board and the sailors’ work ethic is identical to their American counterparts.
But on the Charles de Gaulle, there are the bars, a fascination for American sailors used to the U.S. Navy’s policy of generally not allowing alcoholic beverages at sea. The bars aren’t there for sailors to get drunk. In fact, they are used at a far greater frequency throughout the day for crew members to have meetings, talk with colleagues and friends, and drink coffee and tea. These French sailors drink a lot of coffee and tea.
Another cultural difference is that in the French navy, interpersonal relations emphasize an easygoing informality among the crew — while still maintaining the professionalism that comes with rank. This helps maintain the morale of every crewmember, even the newest and lowest ranking personnel, commanders say.
While the U.S. Navy does its part in building the morale of its sailors — including USO entertainment tours and Morale Welfare and Recreation activities — there’s a certain camaraderie aboard the Charles de Gaulle that would be harder to find with the strict hierarchal and fraternization-sensitive structure of the U.S. Navy.
Entering a space, French sailors walk around to greet and shake the hand of every other sailor in the room. Walking through the hallway, when sailors see someone they recognize, it’s common to stop and chat for a few minutes. Ranks seem only to apply in work situations, and not so much with personal interaction.
Perhaps my favorite aspect about the French carrier was the food, especially the fresh bread. The kitchen staff of about 100 crewmembers prepare about 4,000 meals per day.
All 2,000 crewmembers eat from the same menu, from the most junior sailor to the admiral.
The French put a special emphasis on their food, because it’s a big part of their culture. Walking into the fridge, one will notice trays covered in wheels of cheese. They also have bakers on board, because it’s traditional for the French to have fresh bread and baked goods.