ABOARD THE CHARLES DE GAULLE — The sailors on this ship can drink beer. They can wear beards. And some can think about retiring with a pension after only 15 years.
On the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, the French navy's one and only flattop, the galley is filled with bins of fresh-baked croissants and baguettes. Squadron ready rooms are typically stocked with espresso machines and dark chocolates. The berthing compartments have carpet. And the French sailors here have coveralls that are far more hip than those worn in the U.S. Navy.
The carrier, now cruising in the Persian Gulf, was for a short time the only aircraft carrier in the U.S. Central Command region, where it is taking a lead role in daily bombing of Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria. The mission marks the first time that a foreign military has taken command of the region's carrier operations, known as Combined Task Force 50.
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter boarded the ship Saturday from a V-22 Osprey to visit the French sailors and their captain.
"It is magnificent to be out here on this strong ship with strong allies like the French," Carter told more than 100 sailors on the ship's maintenance deck.
"This is a reminder to us of the global reach, global strength and global reputation of France," Carter said.
The two-month gap in U.S. carrier presence in the Middle East was the first since 2007 and ended Dec. 14 when the carrier Harry S. Truman transited the Suez Canal.
The French sailors are highly motivated at the moment. They deployed from their home port of Toulon in the south of France on Nov. 18, five days after the Islamic State group's terrorist attacks in Paris that killed 149 people and were orchestrated by IS and its sympathizers.
Just days after the ship set sail, it began round-the-clock flight deck cycles in the eastern Mediterranean, launching 10 to 15 sorties a day and hitting dozens of IS targets in Syria.
"Much of the attention was focused on Syria after the Paris attacks because we were told that many of the attacks were planned in Syria," said Cmdr. Lionel Delort, the ship's public affairs officer.
In many ways, the Charles de Gaulle is like any of America's 10 carriers. Its cramped corridors are almost indistinguishable from a U.S. Navy ship (though they are named after streets in Paris). It's powered by a nuclear reactor and a steam catapult system. Its major equipment and information systems are interoperable with the U.S. Navy's.
With three trap wires and safety procedures standardized across the NATO navies, a U.S. Navy pilot can land an F/A-18 Super Hornet on the deck here. Aircraft are recovered by sailors clad in bright yellow and blue, the same color-coded flight-deck jerseyssuits used on American ships.
But there are some key differences. First, it’s a smaller ship than U.S. carriers. At about 850 feet long, it’s about 20 percent shorter than the Americans' Nimitz-class ships that are nearly 1,100 feet long. The crew is typically about 2,000, compared to an American carrier’s complement of about 35,000 — 2,000 more with air wing and staffs.
The French carrier typically deploys for four to five months rather than the seven months that is now routine for Americans. The French sailors take shorter shore breaks in between deployments.
The carrier's current air wing includes 18 single-seat Rafale fighter jets, made by Paris-based Dassault Aviation. And it also has eight Super Entendard, an older and distinctly compact fighter jet that will be retired at the end of this deployment after nearly 40 years in service.
And perhaps the most unusual thing about this ship is the four bars — one for officers, three for enlisted sailors — that serve beer, wine and liquor.
In the officers bar, three polished chrome taps pour Desperado, a Mexican beer, and two flavors of the Belgian beer Affligem. Sailors must pay — a glass will cost 1.25 Euros, or about $1.50.
"This is not an open bar on the taxpayers of the French citizens," Delort said.
Consumption is restricted to a single drink a day. Sailors pay using their identification cards, which are scanned, and payment will be rejected if a sailor tries to buy a second round.
French sailors wearing coveralls walk to the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle.
Photo Credit: Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP via Getty Images
Pilots are expected to refrain from drinking four hours before flying, and sailors are restricted from drinking before a scheduled watch shift.
During a Military Times reporter's visit to the officers bar on a recent morning, two enlisted sailors were behind the bar washing glasses and serving drinks. A lieutenant commander walked in, leaned over the brass bar rail to order a draft beer, chugged it and left moments later.
The bar's menu also offers wine, champagne and liquors like cognac, Jack Daniel's and Southern Comfort.
Occasionally on no-fly days, wine is served at no cost in the wardrooms and mess decks. "Yesterday we had wine with lunch and we asked for a second bottle and we were told by the quarter master: 'No, you've had your bottle,' " Delort said.
"This is not spring break."
Some of the French sailors wear beards, which are prohibited in the U.S. Navy. Yet the sailors must keep theirs trim enough not to interfere with use of navy safety equipment that covers the face.
And those beards are permitted only for sailors who are wearing them at the time of deployment — growing a beard on board is not allowed. Beardless sailors must remain clean shaven at all times, French officials said.
The coveralls that most French sailors wear are distinct from those seen on American ships. The French uniforms are less baggy and appear to have a slimmer fit. Silver reflector stripes are stitched across the chest, arms and lower legs. And the name "Marine Nationale" is emblazoned across the back in thin, crisp white lettering.
"Their coveralls are just cooler than ours," said one former U.S. Navy officer aboard the ship.
The French navy's retirement system is vastly different from the one American sailors are accustomed to.
For enlisted sailors, immediate pensions are available after 15 years of service, but the size of those pension checks varies depending on career fields. Sailors who deploy frequently can receive a robust benefit, but for those who spend most of their career in shore-based billets, the checks will be small.
Officers, on the other hand, must serve 27 years before qualifying for an immediate pension, at which time they will receive pension checks equal to about 80 percent of their basic pay. By comparison, a U.S. Navy officer who serves 27 years would be eligible for 67.5 percent of basic pay.
In the French navy, fraternization policies are more liberal. Sexual relationships are prohibited among sailors at sea, the same as on American ships, but in general, the ranks are allowed to mix more intimately than in the American force.
The French take pride in offering professional opportunities to women. "We are the most feminized military in Europe," Delort said in accented English. He was referring to the fact that women account for 15 percent of the French military, the highest percentage of any European force.
Yet the French special forces remain closed off to women and Delort seemed skeptical of the U.S. military's recent decision to open the Navy SEALs and other special operations jobs to women. "On the paper it is possible. In real life, it is more complicated," he said.
A small cadre of U.S. sailors is serving aboard the Charles de Gaulle. When aboard the French ship, they are subject to French rules, so they can join their shipmates at the bar.
"It’s nice once you’ve done your duties. It builds camaraderie comradery," said an American lieutenant commander and helicopter pilot on the ship, who said he occasionally drops by for a beer or a glass of scotch.
On U.S. ships, he said, it's hard to find a central gathering place because sailors tend to spend time in their individual unit's ready room. And although officers gather in the wardroom, they typically eat and leave soon afterward.
"Here you have a place on the ship where everyone hangs out," he said.
But, he added, "Nobody is getting rip-roaring drunk."
Andrew Tilghman is the executive editor for Military Times. He is a former Military Times Pentagon reporter and served as a Middle East correspondent for the Stars and Stripes. Before covering the military, he worked as a reporter for the Houston Chronicle in Texas, the Albany Times Union in New York and The Associated Press in Milwaukee.