French lifeboat volunteers awarded Légion d’Honneur

The SNSM has said it is "in mourning" after the volunteers deaths; they have now been awarded the Légion d'Honneur

Three French lifeboat volunteers who died when their boat capsized during Storm Miguel this week have been awarded the Légion d’Honneur medal for their bravery.

The incident happened on Friday June 7, when a lifeboat from the SNSM (Société Nationale de Sauvetage en Mer) capsized during a mission to rescue a fishing boat in distress, 800m off the coast of Sables-d’Olonne, Vendée (Pays de la Loire).

There were seven volunteers on board, of which three died. Aged 28, 51, and 55 years respectively, all of the men were experienced sailors.

Storm Miguel hit western France on Friday, bringing winds of up to 120 kph.

Following the incident, three helicopters from the Gendarmerie Nationale, the Sécurité Civile and the Armée de l’Air mounted a search mission. But Atlantic authority Jean-Louis Lozier announced the search was over on Friday night.

He said: “There is no longer any hope of finding a body on the surface.”

Now, the three men have been awarded the posthumous Légion d’Honneur by President Emmanuel Macron. The President called them “heroes”, and said he was sending solidarity and thoughts to the victims’ families, team mates, colleagues, and the coastal community.

A statement from the Elysée read: “The thoughts of the President of the Republic go to the three French men who lost their lives while mounting a rescue. They who accepted all risks to ensure the safety of others, to save one of their own, are national heroes.

“This tragedy reminds us of the risks taken, and the job taken on by the 8,000 coastguards on which our country depends."

The Légion d’Honneur is the highest medal honour that can be awarded for military and civil acts in France, and was established by Napoleon in 1802.

Mayor of Sables-d’Olonne, Yannick Moreau, said: “The coastguards of the SNSM are very often local fishermen. The entire town is in mourning.”

The commune lowered its flags to half-mast this weekend, and rang church bells in honour of the deceased men at 12h on Saturday June 8.

President of the SNSM, Xavier de la Gorce, said: “These tragic deaths have provoked intense emotion in our family of coastguards.”

Mayor Mr Moreau added: “We do not know why [the original fishing boat that required rescue] went out that day. The sea was raging, with huge waves. I have no rational explanation for why the boat went out in these conditions. All fishermen, all coastal people know that in these conditions, you do not go out.”

The SNSM was created in 1967, and is the only organisation dedicated to sea rescue in France.

With 218 stations across France - of which 187 operate all year round - it is now formed of 8,000 volunteers trained in maritime rescue, including 5,000 trained on boats, and 3,000 divers.

It has 180 vessels, including 41 all-weather dinghies, 32 semi-rigid boats, and a number of inflatable vessels and jet-skis; and is sometimes supported by gendarmerie and army helicopters.

In 2018, the service helped to save more than 6,500 people.

Coordinated by safeguarding organisation, Centres Régionaux Opérationnels de Surveillance et de Sauvetage (CROSS), it can be called directly on the number 196.

It is 80% funded by charitable donations, and had a budget of €27 million in 2017. In 2018, the government announced it would increase its subsidies to the association to €6 million per year - double what had been paid in previous years.

But the government has still continued to stress the importance of charitable donations to the operation, prompting some to condemn the State as hypocritical.

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