French Navy

French Navy

The French Navy, officially the Marine nationale (National Navy) and often called La Royale (The Royal Navy), is the maritime arm of the French military. It consists of a full range of vessels, from patrol boats to guided missile frigates, and includes one nuclear aircraft carrier and ten nuclear submarines (four of which are submarine-launched ballistic missile–capable (SNLEs)). The motto of the French Navy is Honneur, Patrie, Valeur, Discipline ("Honour, Fatherland, Valour, Discipline"). These words are found on the deck of every ship of the Navy.

The French Navy today

As of 2006, the French Navy is the largest naval employer in Western Europe, including, among other things, the Marseille Marine Fire Battalion. The chief of the naval staff is Admiral Alain Oudot de Dainville.


The Navy is organised in five branches:

Note that the Troupes de Marine ("Naval Troops"), which comprise the Régiments d'Infanterie de Marine (the famous elite RIMa) are the modern name of the Troupes Coloniales ("Colonial Troops"), and are not part of the Navy, but of the Army.


Currently, French naval doctrine calls for two aircraft carriers, but the French only have one, the Charles de Gaulle, due to restructuring. The Future French aircraft carrier is presently being ordered and is scheduled to be operational by the next major refitting of the Charles de Gaulle.

The navy is in the midst of major technological and procurement changes; newer submarines have been ordered as well as new jet fighters, the Dassault Rafales.

Currently (2007) major ships in service are:


As of 2007, the naval bases in use are

Future developments

The French Navy is undertaking a significant reinforcement, both in modernising and in number, under the Projet de loi de programmation militaire 2003–2008 ("Military programme law project 2003–2008") , which notably calls for:

The equipment will also be modernised, notably

Ranks of the National Navy

The following are the ranks of the French National Navy, showing the French rank, the English translation, and the equivalent in the Royal Navy and the English language rank system of the Canadian Navy.


French Rank (in French) French Rank (in English) Equivalent RN Rank
Amiral Admiral Admiral
Vice-amiral d'escadre Squadron Vice-Admiral Vice-Admiral
Vice-amiral Vice-Admiral Rear Admiral
Contre-amiral Counter Admiral Commodore
Capitaine de vaisseau Ship-of-the-Line Captain Captain
Capitaine de frégate Frigate Captain Commander
Capitaine de corvette Corvette Captain Lieutenant-Commander
Lieutenant de vaisseau Ship-of-the-Line Lieutenant Lieutenant
Enseigne de vaisseau de première classe Ship-of-the-Line Ensign First Class Sub-Lieutenant
Enseigne de vaisseau de deuxième classe Ship-of-the-Line Ensign Second Class Acting Sub-Lieutenant
Aspirant Aspirant Midshipman


Officers mariniers / Non-commissioned Officers

Militaires du rang (équipage)- Junior ranks

  • Quartier-maître de première classe, in English: "Quarter-master First Class" is equivalent to a Royal Navy Leading Seaman
  • Quartier-maître de deuxième classe, in English: "Quarter-master Second Class" is equivalent to a Royal Navy Able Seaman
  • Matelot breveté, in English: "Certified Mate", is equivalent to a Royal Navy Ordinary Seaman


The French navy is affectionately known as La Royale ("the Royal"). The reason is not well known; some theorise that it is for its traditional attachment to the French monarchy, some others said that before to be named "nationale", the Navy had be named "royale" or simply because of the location of its headquarters, "rue Royale" in Paris. The navy did not sport the royal titles common with other European navies like the British Royal Navy.

Middle Ages

The history of the French Navy goes back to the Middle Ages, when it was defeated by the English at the Battle of Sluys and, with Castilian help, managed to beat the English at the Battle of La Rochelle.

The Navy became a consistent instrument of national power around the seventeenth century with Louis XIV. Under the tutelage of the "Sun King," the French Navy was well financed and equipped, managing to score several early victories in the Nine Years War against the Royal Navy and the Dutch Navy. Financial troubles, however, forced the navy back to port and allowed the English and the Dutch to regain the initiative. Before the Nine Years War, in the Franco-Dutch War, it managed to score a decisive victory over a combined Spanish-Dutch fleet at the Battle of Palermo.

18th century

The eighteenth century saw the beginning of Royal Navy domination, which managed to inflict a number of significant defeats on the French. However, the French Navy continued to score various successes, as in the campaigns led in the Atlantic by Picquet de la Motte. In 1766, Bougainville led the first French circumnavigation.

During the American War of Independence the French Navy played a decisive role in supporting the American side. In a very impressive effort, the French under de Grasse managed to defeat a British fleet at the Battle of the Chesapeake in 1781, thus ensuring that the Franco-American ground forces would win the ongoing Battle of Yorktown.

In India, Suffren managed impressive campaigns against the British (1770-1780), successfully contending for supremacy against Vice-Admiral Sir Edward Hughes.

The French Revolution, in eliminating numerous officers of noble lineage (among them, Charles d'Estaing), all but crippled the French Navy. Efforts to make it into a powerful force under Napoleon were dashed by the death of Latouche Tréville in 1804, and the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, where the British all but annihilated a combined Franco-Spanish fleet. The disaster guaranteed British naval domination until World War II.

The only French Naval victory against the British during the Napoleonic Wars was the 1810 Battle of Grand Port, a frigate action in the Indian Ocean won by Admiral Duperré.

19th century revival

Global interventions

In a speech in 1852, Napoleon III famously proclaimed that "The Empire means peace" ("L'Empire, c'est la paix"), but actually he was thoroughly determined to follow a strong foreign policy to extend France's power and glory. Around that time, the French Navy was involved in a multitude of actions around the world.
In 1842, the French Navy took over Tahiti under Admiral Abel Aubert Dupetit Thouars. French activity in those parts would continue throughout the 19th century, as his nephew Abel-Nicolas Bergasse Dupetit Thouars went on pacifying the Marquesas Islands in 1880.
The Crimean War
Napoleon's challenge to Russia's claims to influence in the Ottoman Empire led to France's successful participation in the Crimean War (March 1854–March 1856). During this war Napoleon successfully established a French alliance with Britain, which continued after the war's close.
Conquest of Cochin China

Napoleon took the first steps to establishing a French colonial influence in Indochina. He approved the launching of a naval expedition in 1858 to punish the Vietnamese for their mistreatment of French Catholic missionaries and force the court to accept a French presence in the country. An important factor in his decision was the belief that France risked becoming a second-rate power by not expanding its influence in East Asia. Also, the idea that France had a civilising mission was spreading. This eventually led to a full-out invasion in 1861. By 1862 the war was over and Vietnam conceded three provinces in the south, called by the French Cochin-China, opened three ports to French trade, allowed free passage of French warships to Cambodia (which led to a French protectorate over Cambodia in 1867), allowed freedom of action for French missionaries and gave France a large indemity for the cost of the war.

Second Opium War
In China, France took part in the Second Opium War along with Great Britain, and in 1860 French troops entered Beijing. China was forced to concede more trading rights, allow freedom of navigation of the Yangzi river, give full civil rights and freedom of religion to Christians, and give France and Britain a huge indemnity. This combined with the intervention in Vietnam set the stage for further French influence in China leading up to a sphere of influence over parts of Southern China.
The French Navy conducted a successful blockade of Mexico in the Pastry War of 1838. It was then heavily involved in French intervention in Mexico (January 1862–March 1867). Napoleon III, using as a pretext the Mexican Republic's refusal to pay its foreign debts, planned to establish a French sphere of influence in North America by creating a French-backed monarchy in Mexico, a project which was supported by Mexican conservatives tired of the anti-clerical Mexican republic.
In 1866, French Navy troops made an attempt to colonise Korea, during the French campaign against Korea. The French Navy also had a significant presence in Japan with the Bombardment of Shimonoseki in 1863. In 1867-1868, some level of presence in Japan was maintained around the actions of French Military Mission to Japan, and the subsequent Boshin war.
Sino-French War
The projection of French naval power in the Far East reached a peak in the first half of the 1880s. The Far East Squadron (escadre de l'Extrême-Orient), an exceptional naval grouping of two (subsequently three) naval divisions under the command of Admiral Amédée Courbet created for the duration of the Sino-French War (August 1884 to April 1885), saw considerable action during the war along the China Coast and in the seas around Formosa (Taiwan). Besides almost obliterating China's Fujian Fleet at the Battle of Fuzhou (23 August 1884), the squadron took part in the bombardment and landings at Jilong (Keelung) and Danshui (Tamsui) (5 and 6 August 1884 and 1 to 8 October 1884), the blockade of Formosa (October 1884 to April 1885), the Battle of Shipu (14 February 1885), the so-called Battle of Zhenhai (1 March 1885), the Pescadores Campaign (March 1885) and the 'rice blockade' of the Yangzi River (March to June 1885).

Technological innovations (19th century)

In the nineteenth century, the navy recovered and became the second finest in the world after the Royal Navy. The French Navy, eager to challenge British naval supremacy, took a leadership role in many areas of warship development, with the introduction of new technologies.

  • France led the development of shell guns for the Navy, with its invention by Henri-Joseph Paixhans
  • In 1850, Le Napoléon became the first steam-powered battleship in history.
  • La Gloire became the first seagoing ironclad in history when she was launched in 1859.
  • In 1863, the French Navy launched Plongeur, the first submarine in the world to be propelled by mechanical power.
  • In 1876, the Redoutable became the first steel-hulled warship ever.
  • In 1887, the Dupuy de Lôme became the world's first armored cruiser.

The French Navy also became an active proponent of the "Jeune École" doctrine, calling for small but powerful warship using torpedoes and shell guns to annihilate the British fleet.

Her conceptual and technological edge proved attractive to the newly industrialising Japan, when the French engineer Émile Bertin was invited for four years to design a new fleet for the Imperial Japanese Navy, which led to her success in the First Sino-Japanese War in 1894.

20th century

The development of the French Navy slowed down in the beginning of 20th century, and as a result, it was outnumbered by the German and US Navies, which were also technically superior. It was late to introduce new battleships - dreadnoughts and light cruisers and it entered World War I with relatively few modern vessels. During the war, the main French effort was on land, so not many new warships were built. Despite it, it performed well in World War I. The main operation of the French Navy was Dardanelles Campaign. Most significant losses during the war were four pre-dreadnought battleships.

A number of major ships of the French Navy at the outbreak / end of World War I

The first proto-aircraft carrier

The invention of the seaplane in 1910 with the French Le Canard led to the earliest development of ships designed to carry airplanes, albeit equipped with floats. In 1911 appears the French Navy La Foudre, the first seaplane carrier. She was commissioned as a seaplane tender, and carried float-equipped planes under hangars on the main deck, from where they were lowered on the sea with a crane. La Foudre was further modified in November 1913 with a 10 metre flat deck to launch her seaplanes.

Fleet Construction Between the World Wars

After the World War I, the French Navy remained the 4th in the world, after the British, US and Japanese navies, but the Italian Navy, considered as the main enemy, was close. This order of fleets, with the French Navy equal to the Italian Navy, was sanctioned by the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty.

Every naval fleet consists of a variety of ships of different sizes, and no fleet has enough resources to make every vessel supreme in its class. Nonetheless, different countries strive to excel in particular classes. Between the world wars, the French fleet was remarkable in its building of small numbers of ships that were "over the top" with relation to their equivalents of other powers.

For example, the French chose to build "super-destroyers" which were deemed during the Second World War by the Allies as the equivalent of light cruisers. The Le Fantasque class of destroyer is still the world's fastest class of destroyer. The Surcouf submarine was the largest and most powerful of its day. The Dunkerque class battleships, designed specially to fight the German so-called pocket battleships, were, in spite of their relatively small size, very well-balanced designs and precursors of a new fast battleship generation in the world. The Richelieu class full-size battleships are considered by some experts as most successful battleships, built under displacement limits of Washington Treaty in the world.

In spite of proposals of the French inventor Clément Ader in 1909 to build a ship with a flat deck to operate airplanes at sea, similar to modern aircraft carriers, the French Navy built its first aircraft carrier only in 1920s and did not go further in developing aircraft carriers before World War II. In 1920, Paul Teste achieved the first carrier landing of the history of the French Navy, aboard the Béarn.

Major ships of the French Navy at the beginning of German attack in May 1940:

  • modern battleships: 2
  • old battleships - dreadnoughts: 7
  • aircraft carriers: 1 (Béarn, and one planned)
  • seaplane carriers: 1
  • heavy cruisers: 7
  • light cruisers: 14 (and two in reserve)
  • big destroyers: 32 (Contre-Torpilleurs)
  • destroyers: 33
  • submarines: 77 (and two dozen in various stages of completion)
  • sloops and escorts: 65 (with over twenty in various stages of completion and several in reserve)

Apart from these, there was one modern battleship advanced in construction; the second battleship, one aircraft carrier, numerous submarines and several destroyers were in different stages of construction.

World War II

At the outset of the war, the French Navy was involved in a number of operations against the Axis Powers, participating in the Battle of the Atlantic, the Allied campaign in Norway, and the bombarding of Genoa in Italy. The French surrender and its armistice terms, however, completely changed the situation: the French fleet immediately withdrew from the fight.

The British perceived the French fleet as a potentially lethal threat, should the French become formal enemies or, more likely, should the German Navy (Kriegsmarine) gain control of French vessels. It was essential that they should be put out of action. Some vessels were in British-controlled ports in Britain or Egypt. These ships were either persuaded to re-join the Allies as part of the Free French Navy (Forces navales françaises libres, FNFL) or they were boarded and disarmed.

However, the bulk of the French fleet remained in Mers-el-Kebir or Dakar. The Royal Navy delivered an ultimatum to the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir. But, on 3 July 1940, the British opened fire and sank or damaged much of the fleet when agreement proved impossible (Operation Catapult). In September, an attempt to take Dakar ended in a victory for the Vichy French (Battle of Dakar). These actions soured Anglo-French relations and inhibited further defections to the Allies.

In November 1942, the Allies invaded French North Africa (Operation Torch). In response, the Germans occupied Vichy France (Case Anton). The German occupation included the French naval port of Toulon where the main part of the surviving French fleet lay. This was a major German objective and forces under SS command had been detailed to capture them (Operation Lila). This eventually resulted in the scuttling of the French fleet in Toulon. No French capital ships and few others were taken in reparable condition A few ships fled Toulon and joined the Allies, notably the submarine Casabianca.

The new, nearly-complete French battleship Jean Bart was present in Casablanca during Operation Torch. When she refused to join the Allied cause, she was bombarded and destroyed by the battleship USS Massachusetts. Several French destroyers were also sunk or damaged during the same action by the battleship or the cruiser USS Tuscaloosa. Following "Torch", more French moved to the Allies, including ships interned in Egypt, and then there were French FNFL warships supporting the Allied landings in Normandy and southern France (Operation Dragoon). At the end of the war, the weight of the French navy was 400,000 tonnes (800,000 in May 1940).



The French Navy does not use prefixes of the names of its ships (such as the Royal Navy uses HMS, for instance). Foreign commentators sometimes use the prefixes "FS" (for "French Ship") or FNS (for "French Navy Ship"); these are not official, however.

Addressing officers

Unlike in the French army and air force, one does not prepend mon to the name of the rank when addressing an officer (that is, not mon capitaine, but simply capitaine).

This custom is sometimes said to date back to the Battle of Trafalgar, when Napoleon decided that French Navy officers did not deserve to be called "monsieur" (mon being here elliptical for monsieur).

Addressing a French Navy lieutenant de vaisseau (for instance) with a "mon capitaine" will attract the traditional answer "Dans la Marine il y a Mon Dieu et mon cul, pas mon capitaine !" ("In the Navy there are My God and my arse, no 'my captain'!").

Famous French Naval Officers


Heroes of the First Republic


Other important French naval officers



See also

External links

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