The Tour de France Has Always Been Political

The Tour de France, which arrives home today, is held up as a symbol of national unity. In reality, it's been a site of widespread protest since its inception – exposing the fragility of the consensus politics France's ruling class is now desperate to hold together.

Hundreds of cyclists pass through Brest on one stretch of the Tour de France, 1974. (McCabe / Express / Getty Images)

The Tour de France was born out of political scandal. In 1894, Alfred Dreyfus, an artillery officer of Jewish descent in the French army, was convicted of treason for passing military secrets to the German Embassy. Two years later, the army suppressed evidence proving Dreyfus innocent and a higher-ranking officer guilty. Rumours of a set-up caused uproar and the Dreyfus Affair divided the country.

Le Vélo was the largest daily sports paper in France at this time. Its editor, Pierre Giffard—a Dreyfusard—wrote an article about the affair and a subsequent demonstration at a horse race, where the Comte Jules-Albert de Dion had been arrested for hitting the French President on the head with a walking stick. De Dion was so infuriated at his portrayal that he started a rival newspaper, L’Auto, to put Giffard out of business.

But by late 1902, Le Vélo was selling 80,000 copies a day and L’Auto was struggling. At a crisis meeting, the paper’s chief cycling journalist suggested that if the popular long-distance cycling races—which normally took place on the track—could be held on open roads around the villages and towns of France, this would be a major event to boost sales. The first ‘Grand Boucle’ was thus launched in 1903 as a publicity stunt during a circulation war, a race around France in six stages—Paris-Lyon-Marseille-Toulouse-Bordeaux-Nantes-Paris—with participants expected to ride more than 1,500 miles over two weeks.

The press relished the race’s extreme demands; journalists outdid one another in their descriptions of the cyclists’ ‘ravaged’ and ‘gaunt’ faces. But the description by L’Auto’s editor, Henri Desgrange, of the ideal Tour as one in which ‘there was only one finisher’ led to criticism that sponsors were exploiting working-class athletes for their own gain.

Cycling never was an amateur sport: it became professional as early as the late nineteenth century, which makes it one of the first sports practised for commercial purposes. Cycling had also long been the vocation of working-class Frenchmen and followed by blue-collar workers. Riders overwhelmingly came from peasant and working-class origins, and lived in the countryside, inhabitants of what the sociologist Christophe Guilluy calls the ‘periphery’—those social and geographical swathes of France left behind by the forces of globalisation.

In 1924, the cyclists rebelled against their working conditions. The Tour’s reigning champion, Henri Pélissier, quit the race in protest. Professional cyclists, he declared, were les forçats de la route—‘chain-gang labourers of the road’, an incendiary phrase that captured the country’s vast socio-economic divisions.

Pélissier wrote to the Communist Party paper L’Humanité saying that he accepted the ‘excessive fatigue, suffering, pain’ of his profession, but that he and his fellow racers wanted to be ‘treated as men, not dogs’. The paper seized on the protest with headlines about a ‘rebellion’ by cyclists brandishing ‘the banner of revolt’. Racers who dropped out were ‘strikers’, the Tour a vast commercial operation organised by ‘sports profiteers’ to exploit the ‘cycling proletariat’.

L’Humanité kept up the pressure during the inter-war years, denouncing the ‘ferocious and at times criminal exploitation’ of ‘pedal workers’ and exhorting its readers to recognise that the race was part of bourgeois capitalism’s cynical ‘bread and circuses’ manipulation of the labouring masses. Analogies were drawn between the dehumanising, overly regulated life of the tour cyclist and that of the modern factory worker, linking their protest to a wider critique of overwork, speed-ups, and Taylorism.

Tour organisers, on the other hand, insisted that cycling was a means of upward social mobility. The professional bicycle racer was a popular hero of the era, with athletes presented as model workers: courageous, disciplined, humble. In 1925, L’Auto made a silent, multi-episode movie entitled Le roi de la pédale, featuring a working-class boy climbing the social ladder thanks to the Tour.

British cyclist Ken Mitchell climbing the Col du Galibier during the ninth stage of the Tour between Briancon and Monaco, 15 July 1955. (Bert Hardy / Picture Post / Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

In reality, rider incomes were low and totally dependent on individual performance; the Tour offered a daily allowance equivalent to an average factory worker’s wage for cyclists who met the required productivity standards, travelling a minimum average speed of 20km/h. To discourage racers emboldened by Pélissier’s example, the 1925 regulations warned that any racer harming the tour’s image by dropping out would be banned and that ‘any understanding among the racers in view of protests of any kind, or against the officials’ decisions, any understanding to delay the finish, etc … will be rigorously punished’. In forbidding collective action, the Tour effectively denied cyclists a right enjoyed by French workers since 1884, when the Third Republic formally recognised the right to form unions.

Rider strikes and slowdowns have been sporadic occurrences ever since, but the French public seems less willing more recently to see the racers as workers. ‘If athletes start [striking] as well,’ one disillusioned spectator wondered in 1978, ‘where are we headed?’

The Politics of the Race

For a sports event of this magnitude, in the twenty-first century, the Tour is astonishingly accessible. By and large there are no barriers, so the race passes inches from spectators, who line the roads to watch for free.

Given that, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the tour has regularly been a site of protest. Direct action—by exiled Spanish anarcho-syndicalists Groupes d’Action Révolutionnaires Internationalistes (GARI) in 1974, who targeted the Tour’s infrastructure and threatened Spanish riders; by workers at the Saint-Nazaire shipyards striking for better pay in 1988, who blocked the publicity caravan on Pont de Saint-Nazaire but allowed riders to squeeze past; by Basque separatist group ETA, who targeted the Tour with explosives twice, in 1992 and 1996; and by anti-globalisation protestors seeking to bring attention to José Bové’s imprisonment for destroying genetically modified corn and rice crops in 2003, who interrupted the Tour en route to Marseille, to name just a few examples—has been a recurring feature.

However, amid France’s most famous period of unrest, in 1968, the Tour went ahead as a signal that France was functioning as usual—though journalists bored with the early stages staged their own roadside sit-down. ‘Ah, la Sorbonne des vélos,’ the Tour’s doctor apparently remarked.

One group in particular, farmers, have used the Tour to publicise their specific problems. In 1990, a group of thirty from the western region of Nantes blocked the road with trees, set fire to tyres, and dumped manure, prompting 200 policemen to intervene with armoured cars.

Italian rider Fausto Coppi near the snow line in the French Alps during the Tour de France, July 1951. (Bert Hardy / Picture Post / Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

The riders were unhappy. ‘I understand that people have problems, but they should not take advantage of the Tour to express them,’ Ireland’s Stephen Roche complained. Riders today remain broadly non-political, even as the race route tracks an invisible map of the state’s incremental retreat from rural France; maternity clinics, district courts, post offices, and shops are all disappearing from small town centres.

In 2018, Pyrenean farmers barricaded roads with hay bales in protest against proposed cuts to EU subsidies for agricultural regions. Local police used pepper spray (or some say tear gas) to dispel the protestors, some of which was blown into riders’ faces. The ruthlessness of the police reaction reinforced an impression that the Tour has become a spectacle to benefit and be protected by the state.

Indeed, far more visible at the tour than any kind of protest is sportswashing. Ineos Grenadiers (formerly Team Sky) are funded by a multi-billion-pound chemical company, headed by Britain’s richest man Sir Jim Ratcliffe, who currently has a license to frack for shale gas in Yorkshire. (Ineos is yet to start fracking operations due to planning disputes and protests, but wants to build a test site to show it can be done ‘safely’.) Energy giant Total backs French team Direct Energie, while BikeExchange were formerly sponsored by Orica, a multinational mining company linked to multiple chemical spills worldwide.

State-backed teams Bahrain Victorious, UAE Team Emirates, and Astana, meanwhile, have all been criticised for receiving funding from nations that have been accused of extensive human rights abuses. Companies pay between €200,000 and €500,000 to be part of the publicity caravan, a parade of advertising floats flogging free samples that precedes the actual race and stretches for twelve miles.

(Re)Building France

Corporate influence is not unusual in modern sporting events, of course. What is less usual is how closely the Tour is tied to modern French identity. This is due in part to the race’s inaugural aim to reinforce, in the wake of the Dreyfus Affair, some sense of national cohesion. It’s been suggested that until L’Auto began publishing maps to illustrate the Tour route, few French people actually had an idea of what their country looked like on paper; it was one of the tools, in Eugen Weber’s celebrated phrase, that turned peasants into Frenchmen.

Part of the Tour’s continuing success is that it operates as a broad appeal to collective French memory. The 1989 Tour offered 17,890 francs at the 1,789th kilometre to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution. It was Jacques Chirac who brought the race to the Champs-Élysées when he was mayor of Paris—the only other day in the year when the great avenue is closed is Bastille Day, for the Military Parade.

Inevitably, politicians have sought to appropriate the Tour’s popularity into their own image. In 1985, François Mitterrand, camera in hand, watched the peloton pass through the Vercors, an Alpine range that (uncoincidentally) was an iconic site of the French Resistance. Chirac sampled beers along the Tour’s route, while Nicolas Sarkozy spent an entire stage with his head outside the window of the official car, providing a running commentary on the race.

A gendarme sprays tear gas at protesters as other gendarmes remove haystacks from the route, after a farmers’ protest attempted to block the stage’s route on 24 July 2018.
(Jeff Pachoud / AFP via Getty Images)

In 2019, Macron appeared in the Pyrenean town of Bagnères-de-Bigorre to congratulate Julian Alaphilippe on his victory that day. Macron later waded into the press interviews, where he defended police actions during the gilets jaunes demonstrations.

Political polarisation in the twenty-first century has as much to do with place as ever. From its inception, the geographical loop served as a reminder that politics begins and ends in Paris. Macron’s legislative electoral woes, and the ground gained by the Left and, to a lesser extent, the far-right, suggest a liberal consensus represented by that focal point in collapse. In Paris, Macron is reviled by the Left as a ‘president for the rich’; in La France Profonde, he is dismissed as a ‘president for cities’.

Macron tries to speak to everyone and go everywhere, holding up measures from his ‘Rural Agenda’ and other plans hastily devised in the wake of the gilets jaunes protests, overdue reforms which few feel will do much for rural France. In this year’s presidential election run-off, Macron scored big majorities in the main cities, while far-right Le Pen prevailed in small towns, rural municipalities, and declining former heavy industrial belts. Whether the image of the Tour as a manufacturer of national unity and bipartisan accord—as ‘the truce of July’, as it’s sometimes known—will endure the upheaval remains to be seen.

In 1957, the cultural critic Roland Barthes argued that the Tour de France was an epic ritual as much as it was a sporting event. For Barthes the race traversed ‘a veritable Homeric geography’, its mythical aura providing a way to map a nation’s borders and celebrate the heroic tenacity of those who cycled within them. ‘What is vitiated in the Tour,’ Barthes claimed, ‘is the basis, the economic motives, the ultimate profit of the ordeal, generator of ideological alibis.’ Plus ça change.