Key Point: Charles de Gaulle has served effectively in keeping France a viable, even necessary presence in the Western multilateral intervention scene.
France’s first carrier entered service in the interwar period, but for a very long time the French navy trailed behind international counterparts in naval aviation. This changed in the Cold War, however, and today France operates the world’s most advanced carrier outside of the U.S. Navy. How did France build its naval aviation force, what does it do today and what direction will France take next?
The History of French Carriers
Soon after World War I, France joined the international carrier community through the conversion of the battleship hulk Bearn. Although large, Bearn did not carry many aircraft and never actively participated in combat, even during World War II. The construction of two additional large carriers was suspended by World War II, but after the war the French navy gained access to light carriers transferred from Britain and the United States.
(This first appeared is April 2018.)
Four in total, these carriers helped the French navy develop its naval aviation muscles. The next step was big; France constructed a pair of CATOBAR aircraft carriers, Clemenceau and Foch. Commissioned in 1961 and 1963, the ships displaced 30,000 tons and could carry around forty modern aircraft. A third carrier, the much larger Verdun, was cancelled before being laid down. Clemenceau and Foch, operating the F-8 Crusader and later the Super Etendard, would form the backbone of the world’s second largest carrier force for the latter half of the Cold War. After nearly forty years of hard service, the two ships were decommissioned in favor of France’s next carrier, the nuclear-powered Charles de Gaulle.
The Current State of French Naval Aviation