"Of course I am sad," admits Pettre, 53, a gruff, bearded sea dog. "But not for myself alone. It's for all of our crew on board. For some, life will become difficult." But no last-minute reprieve is in sight. As Pettre points out, "The France was never built to make money." She cost $80 million to build in 1962, and was meant to be a prestige showcase for French culture and cuisine.
As jet airplanes siphoned off most of the elite transatlantic trade, and fuel bills doubled and quadrupled, French government losses on the liner mounted to $35 million a year. It was time for the guillotine.
Captain Pettre is not one to remain long depressed. Among other reasons, he has hugely enjoyed his command of the France. "I suppose I dreamed one day of a great ship when I was a little boy," he admits. "When you are a little boy you dream of anything." After 30 years at sea, first on freighters and then lesser passenger liners, Pettre six years ago achieved the summit. As captain of France's proudest ship, he is absolute monarch over his 1,000-man crew and official host to some 1,800 passengers.
At sea the France's skipper is a man of mystery, glimpsed only on occasion—on the bridge, at Sunday Mass or on the night of the ship's gala. As captain, Pettre has his own private suite where he entertains carefully selected visitors for cocktails or dinner. At these times his fierce reserve softens, and his brown eyes glint with amusement as he listens to his partner of the moment.
When not officially entertaining, Pettre is too busy to socialize. "Sometimes I spend hours in the engine room. Sometimes I am on the bridge when the visibility is not good." Off duty, he rarely mixes with the passengers. Instead he prefers to have "un petit pot" (preferably Johnny Walker Black Label) with a fellow officer, or to retire to his cabin to engage in his hobby, painting in gouache and watercolors.
"I don't know if I will go on sailing after I leave the France," he says. With his wife and son, he has a cattle farm in Brittany. "I will go there for a few weeks," he says. "You can never tell."
Has he considered becoming a full-time artist? "I am just an amateur," he protests. "Oh no, I don't expect to support myself with painting." Not even with seascapes? "I don't paint seascapes," he replies brusquely. "I hate seascapes. I know them too well to think I can do them."
When Capt. Christian Pettre stands on the bridge of the S.S. France as she departs from New York harbor next month on her last transatlantic run, he will be closing out a splendid chapter in luxury liners. In fact, he is almost closing out the book. When the France retires, only the Queen Elizabeth 2 will be left of the opulent behemoths that once crisscrossed the Atlantic.