22 July, 1987 (D+13) was a consequential day in multiple theaters. Battles had been won and lost, and dispositions clarified. By the end of the day it became clear which side was winning, and which was losing in most theaters. Generally speaking however, the outcome of the war itself hung in the balance. Events on the battlefield this day generated a substantial amount of political consequence that would itself affect the course of the conflict.
The initial report on the condition of Foch arrived in Paris less than fifteen minutes after the carrier-air battle in the northern Norwegian Sea had concluded. According to SACLANT, the French carrier was damaged, though it was unclear to what extent. Less than an hour later news arrived at French naval headquarters that Foch had sustained at least two missile hits and was burning. The prospects for her survival were uncertain, but in a private message SACLANT advised Admiral Bernard Louzeau, the French Navy’s chief of staff, to prepare his government to receive some very bad news at some point in the day.
French President Francois Mitterrand convened the upper echelons of government officials and military officers in an emergency meeting. There they were informed that Foch, France’s sole remaining aircraft carrier, was severely damaged and not expected to remain afloat for long. The effect of the news on these men was traumatic and at once the mood in the chamber grew somber. One unnamed minister later likened the atmosphere to that of family members receiving news that the head of the family was stricken by an inoperable type of cancer and now had days left to live.
Two weeks of global war had cost France both of its aircraft carriers. Although Foch had yet to slide beneath the waves it was simply a matter of time. The blow to French prestige, and national morale was going to be incalculable once the news became public. For Mitterrand, the critical concern was in determining the next step. Without carriers, the French Navy was crippled. As a result, so was the nation’s present military commitment to NATO which consisted primarily of naval assets.
France could maintain the current level of commitment, withdraw from the conflict, or send a large portion of its land and air forces to the fighting in Germany. The first two options were unrealistic. Moving forward in either of those directions would spell the end of Mitterrand’s government and he knew it. The national mood in France at the moment was decidedly anti-Soviet. During the lead up to war France’s population had been almost evenly split on the prospect of their nation entering a possible conflict. The loss of Clemenceau in the early hours of the war changed this. Opposition to the war evaporated practically overnight and the French populace came together in a fashion not seen since 1914.
Foch’s demise was going to enrage his people once again, Mitterrand knew. France would demand a pound of Soviet flesh and there was little he could do to prevent it. But the matter of expanding France’s commitment to include significant ground and air forces was not one the government could address so curtly. It was a major step that required hours of discussion, and debate among France’s political and military leaders.
In the late morning word arrived that Foch had finally gone down. An hour later this news was released to the public. France grieved, Mitterrand addressed the nation, and through it all the French government continued to discuss and debate. Some of the politicians failed to see that the decision had already been made for them.
As midnight approached, the French nation mourned as its leaders continued to deliberate.