SAINT-NAZAIRE, France — The owner of Norway’s Café is keeping a bottle of vodka chilled in case she gets a visit from any of the 400 Russian sailors temporarily stationed here. The Chamber of Commerce has put out a brochure for local shopkeepers with Russian phrases. Residents sometimes stop their cars to get a glimpse of the Russians playing soccer or sunning themselves near where their ship is docked.
Saint-Nazaire, a shipbuilding city on the Atlantic coast southwest of Paris, is used to seeing sailors from around the world. But few have been the subject of as much interest and debate as those who arrived here last month to begin training on the first of two warships built for the Russian navy by France.
Even before the downing of a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet over Ukraine put new pressure on Europe to impose stiffer sanctions on Russia, France’s decision to proceed with the sale of the warships to Moscow and to train the Russian navy in how to operate them had prompted opposition and concern from the United States and other nations.
Now, with much of Europe showing signs of taking a harder line with President Vladimir Putin of Russia, Saint-Nazaire has become a symbol of the difficult trade-off between diplomatic and national-security concerns on the one hand and jobs and an economic future on the other.
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Asked about France’s intention to go ahead with the sale, Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain said Monday that it was “unthinkable” that his country would go ahead with such a sale under the same circumstances, and he indicated that he would press the French government to reconsider. In recent days, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and lawmakers in the European Parliament have also raised new concerns about the deal.
Dmitri Rogozin, Russia’s deputy prime minister, said he doubted the deal would be canceled, saying Monday that the French are “very pragmatic.”
French officials said Monday that they would make a final decision in October about delivering the first of the two ships before the end of the year but suggested France was unlikely to approve any request from Russia to purchase two further ships that the deal provides as an option.
The dilemma facing France is one that many European nations are grappling with: Is Britain willing to risk the huge sums of Russian money that flow through London’s financial district? Is Germany willing to endanger the supply of natural gas from Russia?
But in few places is the trade-off quite as stark or direct as it is here. Like many shipbuilding centers, Saint-Nazaire has fallen on hard times. The unemployment rate is around 14 percent. In 2009, the main shipbuilder, STX France, put half the shipyard’s 2,500 employees on reduced hours, forcing them to take partial unemployment benefits.
In that kind of climate, the $1.6 billion deal signed in 2011 by then-President Nicolas Sarkozy to build two Mistral-class amphibious assault ships for Russia, and to train the Russians in operating them, was viewed here as a triumph. The Russian sailors are now in Saint-Nazaire to train on the first of the ships, the Vladivostok, which is scheduled for delivery in November. The second, the Sevastopol, is scheduled for delivery next year.
“I hope that the sale of the Vladivostok will be the start of a sustainable cooperation with Russia,” said Christophe Morel, a union delegate at the STX France shipyard. “It doesn’t happen often and helps 7,000 to 8,000 people make a living.”
Morel downplayed political concerns about the French contract with Russia, calling the Vladivostok a “big ferry” with minor advanced technology and “few weapons” onboard. (It is designed to carry up to 30 helicopters, 60 armored vehicles, 13 tanks and up to 700 soldiers.)
Morel said the shooting down of the Malaysia Airlines jet would weigh on decisions about the warships but that it would probably not change much in Saint-Nazaire.
One recent afternoon, outside the base that is the berth for the Russian frigate Smolny, the home for the Russian sailors here, residents stopped their cars to stare bemusedly at the Russian sailors. Some sailors were playing soccer while others sat on the ground sun-tanning.
But as a result of the controversy surrounding the deal, the Russian sailors have for the most part seemed like ghosts, barely visible in this port city of 67,000 people. Their ship is docked on a platform enclosed by fences. Sometimes, a naval infantryman dressed in a khaki uniform and helmet stands at the bow of the ship, as if he were watching over the port.
“The presence of Russian sailors here is quite surreal,” said Jean-Yves Grandidier, 37, who works at the tourist office opposite a bench where some of the Russian sailors often gather. “But it’s Russia, the land of impenetrable mystery.”
The sailors also congregate at the submarine base, which was built by the Nazis during World War II, to make phone calls, drink beer and nibble on sunflower seeds.
At the city hall of Saint-Nazaire, information on the Russians was scarce. A city employee said the mayor had never been in contact with a Russian navy officer and had postponed a reception that was planned to celebrate the arrival of the sailors.
Still, in Saint-Nazaire, one of the centers of naval construction in France, shopkeepers remain hopeful that the Russians will eventually help generate business.
Marie-Christine Le Nay, who heads a local association that offers Internet services, phone cards and a billiard room to sailors from all over the world, has started keeping a French-Russian dictionary in her store in case the sailors want to communicate with her staff.
Armelle Voleau, 51, who runs Norway’s Café, near where the Russians are based, said few Russians had stopped by her bar to get a drink.
“One of them shook my hand once,” she recalled, “and said: “We. Friends.”