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Bringing a 7,000-tonne destroyer to port in a storm is a bit like breaking in a wild horse. As the wind whips the crests of bungalow-sized waves, four tugs – with lines tethered to push and pull the ship – guides the Chevalier Paul towards the bay of Toulon.

Despite the hi-tech systems on this Horizon-class ship, the approach is strikingly hands-on: there are dozens of personnel on the bridge and each command that is bellowed across the cabin is then shouted back for clarity. Three people operate the rudder; three more man the propeller. Every manoeuvre is marked by sounding the ship’s horn: two honks signal a left turn, one means right, three indicate reverse – and five is an interrogative call. “The weather is working against us,” says Captain Thibault Haudos de Possesse, who is overseeing the ship’s final leg after a three-month reconnaissance mission in international waters off the coast of Syria and the eastern Mediterranean. “We have to have enough speed to bring her in but not too much power.” As the ship moves into Toulon’s harbour, the winds weaken: a rocky peninsula provides a powerful natural buffer. It’s no surprise that this vast anchorage has been used as a port since the Romans founded Telo Martius, a settlement to shelter trading ships, in the 2nd century BC. When Provence became part of France in the 15th century, Toulon piqued the interest of cardinals and kings in Paris, who were seeking to promote the country’s naval prowess. Rulers such as Henri IV bolstered the defences and developedx the port with structures such as the Tour Royale from 1514, the arsenal built by Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban in 1682 and the 400-metre-long dry docks, the construction of which began in 1911.

Surrounded by the glistening waters of the Côte d’Azur, Toulon and a nearby sister base on the Saint-Mandrier peninsula are set on unkempt reserves framed by vertiginous cliffs. Within their perimeters, 18th-century ramparts sit next to Nazi-era bunkers (the Germans occupied the port from November 1942 until August 1944). Heading towards its berth, the Chevalier Paul passes a complex that hosts the famous Commando Hubert. It’s made up of the combat swimmers and special operation unit of the French navy named after Augustin Hubert, an army and naval officer with Free French Forces who was killed in 1944. We pass an abandoned white villa that is now home to a school for explosive specialists. Overlooking it all, the rocky heights of Mount Faron tower over the basin.

Though Toulon is full of historical intrigue, it’s also crucial for France’s current military strategy. Emmanuel Macron has pledged to invest a total of €295bn in defence over the next seven years with the aim of hitting a target of 2 per cent of gdp by 2025. The base’s location is critical and much of the new hardware on order – including six Barracuda nuclear-powered attack submarines – will find a home here. Macron is seeking to reassert his country’s military credibility after years of under-investment to project, as he put it, “a strong France, in charge of its own destiny, protective of its citizens and its interests”. The president’s favoured rapid-reaction interventions and quickfire disaster responses could easily be staged from this warm-water port.

“Having the aircraft-carrier group in Toulon [currently with the Charles de Gaulle], the two Mistral-class amphibious units and the nuclear-attack submarines force gives an important military and diplomatic tool for the French authorities to influence a situation, to deter and to act if needed,” says Marianne Péron Doise, research fellow in international maritime security and strategy at the Institut de Recherche Stratégique de l’École Militaire. “The situation in the Mediterranean is in flux, with a lot of uncertainty, so the French government might decide to intervene quickly and decisively.”

On this, Toulon has form. “If you look back to recent history you will find that all French operations have been launched from Toulon,” says Commander Stanislas Gentien, sitting in his office on the quay in a crisp white shirt and navy jumper embellished with gold epaulettes. He cites Afghanistan, where the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier provided support from off the coast of Pakistan, as well as the Balkans and Libya. “Toulon was designed to project power. We have 70 per cent of the French fleet, in terms of tonnage.” A warm-water port in the Mediterranean has never been more desirable: “All of our strategic reviews have shown that crises, potential crises and centres of interest are in an area that includes the Mediterranean,” he says. Toulon is within spitting distance of what is known as “the arc of instability”: an area stretching from Afghanistan to sub-Saharan Africa that is deemed to be a hotspot for conflict, trafficking, organised crime and failed states.

Though Toulon’s métier has been military might, it’s also the frontier of one of the French navy’s lesser known specialisms: underwater warfare. “This is paradise,” says CF David Bonnefoy, commander of the naval diving school in Saint-Mandrier-sur-Mer, across the bay from Toulon. “We have everything we need here,” he says, gesturing towards the blue waters of his sub-aquatic academy, where cadets (who, for this exercise, are not allowed to use their arms in the water) are swimming 2km around a pair of rusting decommissioned ships used for training. “We set up obstacle courses,” says Bonnefoy. As one cabal of recruits emerges from the water, another files onto boats to head out to the open sea, canisters of oxygen strapped to their backs.

It was in the waters around Toulon that a trio of French naval officers known as the Mousquemers pioneered the concept of scuba in the 1930s and 1940s. Among them was Lieutenant-Commander Jacques-Yves Cousteau, who developed the “aqualung”, the first self-contained underwater-breathing apparatus using high-pressure air tanks. The trio remain the patron saints of the school; classrooms are painted with their maxim and foyers display vintage kit. “They are a great inspiration for us,” says Alain, a young officer. “These guys were the real deal.” After the Second World War the Mousquemers set up La Cellule Plongée Humaine et Intervention Sous la Mer (Cephismer), the French navy’s underwater-research group, in Toulon. Though Cousteau left the navy in 1959, the department continued its research with the zeal of its maverick patrons.

“There was a space race of the sea,” says Dr Jean-Michel Pontier, a senior diving medical officer, as he recalls the heady days of the late-20th century when Comex, a company founded in Marseille by Henri-Germain Delauze, competed with Cephismer and the US navy to reach the greatest depth. “This was the time when deep-diving became important in commerce, in the oil industry. In the 1970s we reached depths of 500 metres; Comex reached 504 metres.”

These depths were achieved using “saturation dives”, a method that involves a hyperbaric chamber to compress divers to a certain pressure before they operate underwater. They then swim within a “closed bell” on the sea floor, where they perform engineering and security tasks.

Many of these experimental feats first took place on dry land. Pontier gives us a tour of the “caisson Hyperbare ch500”, a series of interconnected watertight chambers that sit in a vast hangar. “We call this a saturation centre,” says Pontier. The space can host up to four marines for days – or even weeks – to simulate the effects of diving to depths of up to 500 metres; the chambers are also used to test equipment. “When I stayed in there for a week I had the feeling that I was in space,” he says. “We’re studying the physiological reactions to these kind of extremes.”

Much of the kit here resembles equipment used by astronauts. Officers in an adjacent hanger are working with a Canadian-designed “newtsuit”, which allows a person to walk along the seabed up to 300 metres below sea level. Hervé, the 34-year-old chief of the underwater-intervention division of Cephismer, shows us the French-designed robot that will soon replace the “newtsuit”: it can be used up to 1,200 metres beneath the surface. He is unfazed by the idea of being trapped in a tiny pod at the bottom of the ocean: “It was my destiny,” he says. Back at the school in Saint-Mandrier-sur-Mer, pupils assemble for a briefing under a sign in the naval combat-diving school that reads, “Enthusiasm is the sole virtue” (the words of a Mousquemer commander). The school trains a select cadre of navy crew to become plongeurs démineurs (diving bomb specialists) in a course that takes up to one year. The group finish their 2km morning swim before donning fatigues to jog across the courtyard for a briefing (tradition dictates that the students must run everywhere). Before lunch the team will then dive offshore, descending 48 metres below, to disarm a mock bomb on the seabed. The bomb might be fake but water presents its own risk.

In the bright winter sunshine, the group of officers wait on the stern of a vessel, some with eyes closed in concentration, ready to slither into the cold sea. “Explosives don’t function in the same way underwater,” says Cédric, the capitaine de corvette who leads today’s mission. “We are dealing with two threats: the bomb and the threat caused by the sea. We have a very specific capability.” The plongeurs démineurs will form a team on operational frigates designed to identify – and dispose of – mines on the sea floor. Such teams are currently deployed in France’s missions in the Persian Gulf off the coast of Yemen and in Lebanon. They’re also capable of assisting in other situations. “If a ship is sinking with the threat of pollution we have the equipment and tools to deal with it,” says Anthony, an officer who was born in Toulon. “During Hurricane Irma we sent a big team to clear wrecks and reopen the harbour.”

As the divers emerge from the water, their comrades help them on deck. “For me, the underwater world is just as exciting as outer space,” says Clement, a 28-year-old trainee. “Water covers over two thirds of Earth. It’s a great unexplored world. Every time I dive it fills me with awe.”

In the waters around Toulon, plongeurs like Clement are enhancing the capability of this Mediterranean stronghold; a paradise, perhaps, but also a source of France’s influence in the world.

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