Every year I look forward to the Tour de France as one of my highlights of the sporting year. I was fascinated recently to learn about the links between the Tour de France and the notorious Dreyfus affair of late 19th Century France.Dreyfus was a Captain in the French artillery who was imprisoned for espionage. Subsequently it emerged he’d been framed. The real culprit was known – indeed Oscar Wilde wrote of having met the real spy, an officer called Walsin-Esterhazy.
Dreyfus was recalled from Devil’s Island and retried, but convicted again. This is the episode that led to the famous headline “J’accuse!” prompted by an open letter from Emile Zola to the French President. The letter was published on the front page of the newspaper L’Aurore, and the intention was to force a libel trial in which the full facts of the case – by then widely known – would be aired in open court.
As a tactic it wasn’t very good – Zola was tried and convicted and subsequently fled to the UK.
From the arrest of Dreyfus in 1894 to his exoneration in 1906, the ‘Dreyfus Affair’ split France in two in an extraordinary way. Those convinced of Dreyfus’ guilt, the ‘anti-Dreyfusards’, were largely made up of royalist, church and anti-semetic groups. The controversy led directly to the separation of church and state in France in 1905. Echoes of the divide can still be seen 45 years later in the make-up of the Vichy regime.
The ‘Affaire’ also prompted Albert, Comte de Dion, to withdraw his support for the cycling magazine Velo, edited by one Pierre Giffard, a pro-Dreyfus writer who criticised Dion for his part in an attack on President Loubet. Dion reacted to the criticism by withdrawing his support from Velo, and instead launched a rival paper called Auto, with some of his nationalist chums including one of the Michelin brothers.Auto went on to launch the Tour de France under the direction of the deeply unpleasant Henri Desgrange. In one episode, Desgrange had previously snubbed a black cyclist at the Parc des Princes by presenting his winnings in 10 centime coins. Poor Major Taylor had to take his winnings home in a wheelbarrow!
The current owners of the Tour de France are Amaury Sport Organisation, part of the Éditions Philippe Amaury, or Amaury group. Their publications include l’Equipe, which traces its origins back to, you guessed it, Auto.
And still some people hang on to this myth that sports and politics don’t mix!
Of course I’m looking forward to next year’s tour just as much as ever, and I’ll be buying that royalist rag l’Equipe as often as I can get hold of it. Funny how something so wonderful – and I include l’Equipe in that, as well as Le Tour (we don’t have a sports-dedicated newspaper in the UK, so I’m deeply jealous that the French have l’Equipe) – can come from such murky roots. Surely some sort of moral in there somewhere?
It’s a great story, covered briefly by Geoffrey Wheatcroft in his book ‘Le Tour’. And you can find out more about the Dreyfus affair here: L’Affaire Dreyfus