The 17th century houses of La Ciotat’s old port are now restaurants and boutiques. The fishing boats have given way to modern yachts, but still the occasional pointu goes out to fish and some of the yachts are converted working craft.

It’s a delightful blend of ancient and modern; a blend that is now being repeated, in a more functional way in the industrial area of this little Mediterranean port.

La Ciotat is famed for three things: the world’s oldest cinema, the invention of pétanque and it’s shipyard!

In 1896, the film “L’Arrivé d’un train” was shown to a paying Paris audience. It was filmed at La Ciotat station, by the inventors of moving pictures, August and Louis Lumière. The brothers, whose father owned the Chateau du Clos des Plages, in La Ciotat, then opened a cinema there, in 1899. The Eden Theatre still exists and is presently being carefully restored, with funding from the French state and the European Union.

Pétanque came about because of the infirmity of a La Ciotat citizen, who had been an ace at the Provençale version of bowls. The cause of Jules Le Noir’s infirmity is uncertain, some say he was crippled in an accident and confined to a wheel chair, others that he was so badly afflicted by rheumatism that he couldn’t easily take the obligatory step out of the circle, required by the rules. What is certain is that he and his friends thought up a variation on the local game and pieds tanqué - feet nailed to the ground - was invented!

The work of building wooden sailing ships began in La Ciotat in the early 17th century, but the work was very artisanal and it was not for more than 200 years that the yards became industrialised. Entrepreneur Louis Benet had long dreamed of modernising the La Ciotat yards and, in 1835, he and two friends decided to build a steam ship, the Phocéen, for Mediterranean voyages. The region had no history of building a ship of this type and the propulsion system and even the tools to assemble the mechanical components had to be imported from England. Nevertheless, the local workforce must have adapted quickly, because Phocéen was ready to sail within a year. Six more steam ships were built in the next two years and each time everything mechanical was imported from England and all the La Ciotat yard actually made was the hulls. Then James de Rothschild invested both money and vision in the yard. He insisted that Benet bought knowledge, rather than machinery, from England and the result was a leap forward in the technology of the yard and the launching - in 1847 - of the iron liner Bonaparte, France’s first propeller driven steam ship.

Four years later, the La Ciotat yard was sold to the fledgling Compagnie des Services Maritimes des Messageries Nationales. The overseas mail service began in the Mediterranean, then rapidly expanded; first to the Black Sea then to the Far East and the Indian Ocean. Another period of rapid expansion followed the inauguration of the Suez Canal, in 1869, and from then until the outbreak of World War 1, has often been described as “a golden age” for the company and the town that built its liners.

“Golden age”? For some perhaps, but it was not without it’s labour problems, militancy and periods of unemployment for the workers.

That first World War saw the liners converted to hospital ships and troop carriers; 22 of which were lost. After it, the company found itself in possession of several almost new vessels seized from Germany.

The end of the war was the birth of a new “golden age”, where the company was concerned and its liners were seen all over the world. In 1919, El Kantara was the first French ship to go through the Panama Canal, inaugurating a new round the world service. In 1921, the Angkor became the first company vessel to be converted to oil engines. The profusion of new German vessels meant that the yard did not do so well and it was not until 1925 that the La Ciotat yard launched the liner Mariette-Pacha. She represented an era where liners developed both technically and in the sheer luxury of their interior decor. Then came World War II.

Inevitably work almost came to a standstill, as the workers went to war. Construction of the liner La Marseillaise had just begun, at the outbreak of hostilities, but it wasn’t until 1944 that she was launched as Marechal Petain. En route for Le Bouc, where she was to be completed as a troop carrier, she was the victim of a German attack and it was not until 1949 that she was eventually relaunched in La Ciotat.

In the ‘50s things began to change for French shipyards. Governments of all colours had handed out aid to keep the ship building industry going; sometimes in the form of orders, sometimes as payments to ship owners who had vessels constructed in French yards. In 1951, new laws imposed tighter controls aimed at making the yards more efficient and less dependent on state investment. State aid went from 97 billion francs in 1959 to 19 billion in 1963.

At the same time, liners were beginning to be squeezed out by airplanes. Messageries Maritimes began to cut back its fleet and, in 1972, the liner Pasteur made the final voyage. The La Ciotat yards were now building container ships, small tankers and general cargo vessels, but competition from the Far East was beginning to make things difficult in that field. An attempt was made to improve efficiency, by combining shipyards in Dunkirk, La Ciotat and La Seyne into one umbrella company, Chantiers du Nord et de la Méditerranée, commonly known as NORMED, but the merger did little to make the yards profitable.

The final straw came in June 1986, when Jacques Chirac announced that his Government would no longer subsidise NORMED. On July 31, 1988, the gates of the La Ciotat shipyard were closed.

The gates had closed on around 100 militants, who were determined that the installations would not be demolished and turned into a series of marinas with luxury housing developments around them. Nothing but reopening as a shipyard would satisfy them, but seldom can parties at extreme ends of the political spectrum have been so in accord. National Front leader Jean Marie Le Pen’s view that “A scheme to grow maize on the moon would be more likely to succeed” was shared by Communist Party leaders.

In 1990, it looked like it might happen. The regional council said it would hand over the site to a company which would kick things off by buying the old La Ciotat built liner Gaugin, which had caught fire in the Caribbean, and giving it a refit. The snag was Lexmar needed Government money to get the project off the ground and, not surprisingly, that was not forthcoming. Lexmar went into liquidation and the shipyard gates remained closed.

Then, in 1992, someone had the idea that La Ciotat would be the perfect place to repair and maybe even build large yachts and a new chapter began.

LA CIOTAT REBORN

In August 1994, an accord was finally signed by the state, regional, local and town councils and the Société de l’économie mixte de développement éconmique et portuaire (Semidep) was created to co-ordinate the redevelopment. It wasn’t all smooth going though; not for nothing did l’Humanite once describe La Ciotat as the “Haut lieu de la résistance des métallo de la navale” and the battles continued throughout the last years of the 20th century, with sometimes violent incidents, such as stabbings, vandalised cars, dog poisoning and arson.

The mayor of La Ciotat, at the time of the accord, was Jean-Pierre Lafond, who was to end up in prison for misappropriation of public money. He had wanted to build 650 luxury appartments with moorings on the site. In 1995, he was replaced by the staunchly communist nurse, Rosy Sanna. She was entirely in accord with Lafond concerning the futility of retaining a ship building capability at La Ciotat, but disagreed on 650 luxury houses with moorings; her aim was denser and more utilitarian housing.

The old port was converted to a marina, with 700 berths and more ashore, plus a yacht club and other facilities, but the conflict rumbled on. By the turn of the century, there were some luxury yacht companies installed, such as Composite Works; but the total number of companies on site was only 9, employing a mere 150 workers. The principal work being done was the manufacture of masts, not for yachts, but for windfarms! Then, in 2000, Bouygues came along to manufacture structures needed to construct marinas, but the moorings were destined for Monaco, not La Ciotat. Southern Spars started manufacturing in La Ciotat, along with other yachting orientated companies,

Then came a liason between Monaco Marine and Semidep, which originally planned to have a massive boat lift and megayacht centre operational by spring 2005. Inevitably, there were delays and, on announcing a further joint investment of €36.93 million, Semidep MD, Georges Capurro spoke of a 2006 opening. It is now 2007, the site is far from complete, the boat lift had - at the time of our visit, yet to lift a boat, but there were high hopes.