The gigantic aircraft carrier Clemenceau, once a proud symbol of France's naval might, returned to home port in Brest yesterday after failing to find a foreign country willing to dismantle its asbestos-contaminated hull.
The ship entered the Brest Channel shortly before 7:30am and headed towards the Breton naval base in northwestern France, after a lengthy and controversial journey under tow to India and back.
The French authorities must now decide how and where to get it dismantled, after conducting tests to determine exactly how much asbestos -- a carcinogenic substance extensively used in construction and boat-building prior to the 1970s -- remains in its structure.
The Clemenceau was due to dock at around 9am at the same berth in the Brest port that it had occupied in 1961, when it began its 36 years of service with the navy.
Around 40 people turned out to watch the 27,000-tonne ship as it passed the lighthouse at the entrance to the Brest Channel, including one of the metalworkers who had helped build it.
The Clemenceau's return to Brest marks the latest stage in an embarrassing saga that began in 2003, when the hull of the decommissioned vessel was sold to a Spanish company.
The buyer had agreed to remove the asbestos from the ship within the EU. But when it started towing the Clemenceau to a breakers' yard in Turkey, a nation with lower health and safety standards than those of the EU, France cancelled the deal.
Last year Paris tried to send the Clemenceau to India for demolition, but the Egyptian authorities prevented its passage through the Suez Canal on safety grounds.
After Cairo relented, it was the turn of the European Commission, the EU's executive arm, to demand an explanation for the ship's despatch to India.
In February, the Indian High Court banned the Clemenceau from entering the country's territorial waters and French President Jacques Chirac ordered the infamous vessel back home.
The Clemenceau, 266m long and 51m wide, saw action in the Lebanese civil war of the 1980s and the first Gulf war of 1991.
Following its decommissioning in 1997, the ship, named after World War I prime minister Georges Clemenceau, is now known officially and unromantically as "Hull Q790."