ABOARD AIRCRAFT CARRIER CHARLES DE GAULLE (Reuters) - Dressed in a khaki uniform and helmet, a pilot jumps into a Rafale fighter jet under the watchful gaze of France's armed forces minister, Florence Parly, as the deck of the Charles de Gaulle carrier prepares for its first activity in 18 months.
Europe's only nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the 260-metre-long (850-ft) vessel, which carries 1,700 personnel and whose tonnage is equal to four Eiffel Towers, is due to be deployed in early February in the Indian Ocean, according to military sources.
Its mid-life upgrade, costing 1.3 billion euros (£1.13 billion), largely focussed on modernising facilities for landing and guiding aircraft. That came after heavy use given the retirement of Britain's carrier and intense operations between 2015-2016 in the fight against Islamic State militants.
President Emmanuel Macron will spend a night on the vessel next week as it ramps up its five-week pre-deployment training phase.
Faced with the "profound change in the naval strategic panorama", including the expansionist aims of Beijing in the South China Sea, France considers the aircraft carrier of incomparable "tactical and political value", said Admiral Christophe Prazuck, Chief of Staff of the French Navy.
(Reporting by Sophie Louet; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)