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July 14, 2009

Tour de France, The Dreyfus Affair, and Anti-Semitism

What's the raison d'être for the Tour de France?
Recently: Lance Armstrong

 Tour de France
The recent reason for the TdF is Lance Armstrong, American athlete and strategist. He emerged from cancer and chemotherapy as the most efficient cyclist in the world. (Sounds like a cartoon hero.) His role as a team strategist (and the TdF is a team sport) is as significant as his skill on the bike. He brings an American strategy and pragmatic perspective (a single, burning focus on the goal, to the exclusion of all distractions) to a sport previously led by a competition among corporate entities and the peloton mafia. Now the tour is all about Lance (aka The One-Nut Wonder), and if Lance doesn't win this year it'll likely be his teammate.

Lance has brought Web 2.0 to the stodgy TdF, twittering incessantly to his fan base throughout the last year. He is one of the faces that the Euro-zone thinks of when they think, "American". To an extent, the TdF has become a Lance Armstrong buddy movie, with daily takes on YouTube:
Lance Armstrong, Robin Williams

What is the reason for the Tour de France?
Long term: Selling Yellow Newspapers

The first daily sports newspaper in France at the end of the 19th century was Le Vélo (the bike), which was printed on green paper. It sold 80,000 copies a day. France was split over the Dreyfus affair. Le Vélo stood for Dreyfus's innocence while some of its biggest advertisers, notably Albert de Dion, owner of the De Dion-Bouton car works, believed him guilty. Angry scenes followed between the advertisers and the editor, Pierre Giffard, and the advertisers started and funded a rival paper, L'Auto (the car).

The Tour de France was invented to promote the struggling new rival, L'Auto. The TdF was to outdo the Paris-Brest et retour organised by Giffard's green Le Vélo. The idea for a round-France race came from L'Auto's chief cycling journalist, Géo Lefèvre, who discusses it with editor Henri Desgrange (a well known cyclist) in November 1902. Henri Desgrange was an established cyclist himself, having broken the one-hour record with 35 kilometres at Neuilly in 1893.

L'Auto announced the race in 1903; the plan was a five-week race from 31 May to 5 July. The original scheme proved too daunting and only 15 riders entered. Desgrange cut the length to 19 days, scheduled the race in July, and offered a daily allowance. He attracted 60 entrants, both professionals and amateurs.

The demanding nature of the race (the stages averaged 400 km and could run through the night), captured the public's imagination. L'Auto's circulation rose from 25,000 to 65,000; by 1908 it was a quarter of a million, and during the 1923 Tour 500,000. The record claimed by Desgrange was 854,000 during the 1933 Tour.

The first yellow jersey was worn by the Frenchman Eugène Christophe in the stage from Grenoble to Geneva on July 18, 1919. The colour was chosen to reflect the yellow newsprint of the organising newspaper, L'Auto. This was a brilliant stroke of marketing: even when other newspapers covered L'Auto's bicycle race, they referred to the yellow jersey (the Maillot jaune) which the readership associated with L'Auto's yellow newspaper.

Race director Desgrange wrote: "This morning I gave the valiant Christophe a superb yellow jersey. You already know that our director decided that the man leading the race [de tête du classement général] should wear a jersey in the colours of L'Auto. The battle to wear this jersey is going to be passionate."
  • A bon mot: The French call the yellow jersey the Maillot jaune, the British riders call it the Mellow Johnny, and when Lance Armstrong checks into hotels during the TdF he uses the name Jonathan Mellow. (link).
  • The use of the TdF to sell newspapers continues.
  • Doping scandals generally break in August-September, extending the TdF's effect on daily circulation. In fact, if you look at recent scandals where drug test results where leaked to the press, you'll see that the ASO (which owns the TdF) leaked the results to - wait for it, wait for it - the newspaper that owns the ASO, ensuring newspaper sales.
  • The irony of the TdF participating in yellow journalism is not lost upon us.

What's the sub-reason for the Tour de France?
At the Root: The Dreyfus Affair and Anti-Semitism

L'Auto owes its life to a 19th century French scandal involving soldier Alfred Dreyfus, called the Dreyfus affair. With overtones of anti-semitism and post-war paranoia, Dreyfus was accused of selling secrets to France's old enemy, the Germans.

As different sides of society insisted he was guilty or innocent - he was eventually cleared but only after dishonor, discharge, and a rigged trial had banished him to an island prison camp - the split came close to civil war and still have their echoes in modern French society. Many felt that anti-Semitism led to identifying the Jewish Dreyfus as a scapegoat to protect the institution of the French Army.

Two years later, in 1896, evidence came to light identifying a French Army major named Esterhazy as the real culprit. High-ranking military officials suppressed this new evidence and Esterhazy was unanimously acquitted on the second day of his court martial. Instead of being exonerated, Alfred Dreyfus was further accused on the based on false documents fabricated by French counter-intelligence officers covering their colleague Esterhazy.

Word of the military court's framing of Alfred Dreyfus and of an attendant cover-up began to spread, largely due to a vehement public protestation in a Paris newspaper by writer Emile Zola. The case had to be re-opened and Alfred Dreyfus was brought back from Guiana in 1899 to be tried again. The intense political and judicial scandal that ensued divided French society between those who supported Dreyfus (the Dreyfusards) and those who condemned him (the anti-Dreyfusards).

France's largest sports paper, Le Vélo, mixed sports coverage with political comment. Its editor, Pierre Giffard, believed Dreyfus innocent and said so, leading to acrid disagreement with his main advertisers. Among them were the automobile-maker the Comte de Dion and the industrialist Clément.

Frustrated at Giffard's politics at Le Vélo, they planned a rival paper. The editor was a prominent racing cyclist, Henri Desgrange, who had published a book of cycling tactics and training and was working as a publicity writer for Clément. The new paper became simply L'Auto, and was printed on yellow paper because Giffard used green.

Circulation was sluggish, however, and only a crisis meeting called "to nail Giffard's beak shut", as Desgrange phrased it, came to its rescue. A 23-year-old cycling and rugby writer called Géo Lefèvre suggested a race round France, bigger than any other paper could rival and akin to six-day races on the track. The Tour De France was the salvation of Le Vélo, a newspaper born to support the charges against Captain Dreyfus.

Eventually, all the accusations against Alfred Dreyfus were demonstrated to be baseless. He was aquitted, retired as a Major, and returned to active duty in World War One, where he served his country honorably and left as a Lieutenant-Colonel.


Remko said...

So the yellow jersey is based on the color of L'auto, but why is Le Velo green I can't find it anywhere?

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