How a French Political Scandal Created the World’s Greatest Bicycle Race

The Tour de France bicycle race is one of Europe’s most beloved and popular sporting contests. Held every year since 1903 except during the two World Wars, the race pits 20-22 international teams against a gruelling 21-stage course winding through some of the roughest terrain in France and neighbouring countries. A major event on both the European and global sporting calendar, the race attracts an estimated 1 billion television viewers worldwide and millions of live spectators who gather along the course to cheer on the contestants. While the idea of a major cycling race in France – a nation long obsessed with the bicycle – might seem like a no-brainer, in reality the Tour de France owes its entire existence to one of the greatest political scandals in French history. This is the unlikely story of how the infamous Dreyfus Affair led to the creation of the world’s greatest bicycle race.

Alfred Dreyfus was born on October 9, 1859 in Mulhouse [“Mull-ooze”] in the French region of Alsace, the youngest of nine children born to wealthy textile manufacturers Raphaël and Jeanette Dreyfus. In 1877, Dreyfus decided to pursue a military career and enrolled at the École Polytechnique in Paris, graduating as a sub-lieutenant in 1880. He then underwent training to become an artillery officer, rising to the rank of Captain by 1889. That same year he was made adjutant to the director of the State Arsenal in Bourges [“Boorzhe”], while in 1891 he married 20-year-old Lucie Hadamard [“Had-ah-marr”], who soon after bore him two children. While everything appeared to be going well for the young officer, there was one unfortunate problem: Alfred Dreyfus was Jewish.

The rampant anti-semitism which plagued the French Third Republic was driven by a variety of factors, most notably France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871. This humiliation deeply scarred the nation and led to the rise of a virulent brand of militaristic ultra-nationalism known as Revanchisme. Another key factor was the 1892 Panama Scandal, in which the French government lost nearly half a billion Francs to monetary corruption during its unsuccessful attempt to build the Panama Canal. At the heart of the scandal were two German-Jewish  bankers, Baron Jacques Reinach and Cornelius Herz, whose involvement, along with the general prosperity and influence of Jews in French society, fuelled conspiracy theories about the disloyalty of Jews and the existence of a nefarious international “Jewish Lobby.” Dreyfus would come face-to-face with this anti-semitism after being admitted to Paris’ prestigious War College in 1889. Dreyfus was expected to do well, but at his college examination review in 1882, the head of the review panel, General Bonnefond [“Bun-uh-foh’] declared that Jews were not desired on the Army General Staff and awarded Dreyfus poor marks for character and likability. This resulted in Dreyfus graduating only ninth in his class. But things were about to get much, much worse.

In September 1894, the French Military Intelligence Service infiltrated a French housekeeper known as “Madame Bastian” into the German Embassy in Paris. She soon came across a torn-up note in a wastepaper basket which she turned over to her handlers. The note, which became known as the bordereau [“Bor-der-oh”], was addressed to Max von Schwartzkoppen, the German military attaché at the embassy, and indicated that confidential documents regarding the design of a new French artillery gun would soon be handed over to Germany. The Intelligence Service immediately launched an investigation to uncover the author of the note, quickly zeroing in on the Jewish Captain Alfred Dreyfus. However, the evidence connecting Dreyfus to the bordereau was non-existent, with numerous experts including Alphonse Bertillon [“Bear-tee-own”], the inventor of the mug shot and other forensic techniques, testifying that Dreyfus’s handwriting did not match the note. Nevertheless, on October 13, 1894, General Auguste Mercier, the Minister of War, summoned Dreyfus to his office for a plain-clothes inspection. It was a trap, with Mercier forcing Dreyfus to write down a dictated letter based on the bordereau in order to extract a de facto written confession. The head of the investigation, Major Auguste du Paty de Clam, even handed Dreyfus a pistol and suggested he commit suicide to preserve his honour. Dreyfus refused, declaring he would prefer to live to establish his innocence. Two days later Dreyfus was arrested and imprisoned.

The military trial of Alfred Dreyfus began on December 19, 1894. The proceedings, marked by widespread distortion, obfuscation, and irregular procedure, created a media circus, with antisemitic groups and newspapers pointing to Dreyfus’s alleged guilt as proof of the disloyalty of French Jews.

While Dreyfus maintained his innocence throughout, on December 22 he was convicted of espionage and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island, the infamous penal colony in French Guyana. The following January, Dreyfus was subjected to further humiliation in the form of military degradation, a public ceremony in which the badges of rank were torn from his uniform and his sword snapped in half. He was then transported by ship to South America, arriving at Devil’s Island on April 13, 1895.

There the matter might have rested, if not for one Major Georges Picquart [“Pee-carr”], the newly-appointed head of the Military Intelligence Service. In March 1896, Picquart discovered among some documents stolen from the German embassy a series of letters and telegrams written between Max von Schwartzkoppen, the German military attaché, and a French Major named Charles Walsin-Esterhazy. To Picquart’s surprise, Esterhazy’s handwriting exactly matched that of the infamous bordereau letter used to convict Dreyfus. Picquart immediately launched his own investigation, and soon determined that Walsin-Esterhazy, his career stalling and deep in debt, was selling French military secrets to Germany. But as such a revelation would be deeply embarrassing to the French military establishment, in 1897 the French General Staff transferred Picquart to Tunisia in North Africa in an effort to silence him. Picquart nevertheless managed to present his findings to French lawyers and politicians, blowing the Dreyfus Affair wide open. In 1898, an ex-lover of Esterhazy made public letters in which the Major expressed his hatred of France, resulting in his arrest. The French Army General Staff, not wishing to see their 1895 judgement against Dreyfus called into question, intervened to have Esterhazy tried in a closed military court. Despite the ample evidence against him, on January 11, 1898, Esterhazy was acquitted of all charges and released, sparking anti-semitic riots in the streets of Paris.

The ensuing scandal rocked the nation, dividing France into two bitterly-opposed camps. On one side were the Anti-Dreyfusards, composed mainly of catholics, monarchists, and other conservatives who backed Dreyfus’s conviction and the Army’s stance against the perceived threat of international Jewry. On the other were the progressive Dreyfusards who saw the conviction as a travesty of justice and a betrayal of French Republican values and sought to reform the Catholic Church and bring the military under democratic control. Among the ranks of the Dreyfusards were a number of prominent artists and intellectuals including writers Anatole France, Marcel Proust, and Émile Zola. On January 13, 1898, Zola published an open letter titled “J’accuse!” [“Zha-kooz”] on the front page of the newspaper Aurore [“Oar-oar”], accusing the Ministry of War of covering up its mishandling of the Dreyfus Affair. Zola’s intention was to provoke a libel trial so the previously-concealed facts of the case could be aired in open court. Unfortunately, Zola’s plan backfired, and on February 23, 1898 he was convicted of libel and sentenced to a year’s imprisonment and a 3,000 franc fine. Zola fled to England, where he spent the following year in exile.

 However, thanks to Zola’s open letter and the dogged efforts of the Dreyfus family, the Dreyfusard movement at last began to pick up steam. In August 1898 the infamous bordereau note was revealed to be a crude forgery, fabricated by one Major Hubert-Joseph Henry [“Hue-bear Zho-zef Hahn-ree”] of the Military Intelligence Section. Following Major Henry’s confession and subsequent suicide, a new left-wing government coalition led by President René Waldeck-Rousseau recalled Alfred Dreyfus from Devil’s Island for a retrial. After a second military court-martial in September 1899 once again convicted Dreyfus of espionage, President Rousseau, aware of how the scandal was tearing the country apart, intervened and granted Dreyfus an official pardon. In July 1906, a civilian court of appeals overturned the 1899 conviction while the French parliament passed a bill formally reinstating Dreyfus into the Army. However, Dreyfus’s time on Devil’s Island had taken a toll on his health, and the following year he retired from the Army and entered the Reserves. He was recalled to service during the First World War, serving as commander of an ammunition supply column before retiring as a Lieutenant-Colonel. Alfred Dreyfus died at the age of 75 on July 12, 1935 – exactly 29 years to the day after his exoneration. The French Army, however, would not publicly declare his innocence until 1995.

The Dreyfus Affair would cast a long and complicated shadow over France’s Twentieth Century. On the one hand, Dreyfus’s ultimate exoneration was seen as a vindication of the French Republican values of justice and liberty, and directly contributed to the passing of a 1905 law officially separating church and state. On the other hand, the affair resulted in the hardening of nationalist and anti-semitic sentiment within the French armed forces and laid the groundwork for the right-wing Vichy Government’s participation in the holocaust during the Second World War.

But by now you are probably wondering: what does any of this have to do with the Tour de France? Well, the Dreyfus Affair just happened to coincide with the invention of the modern safety bicycle, which quickly took France and the rest of Europe by storm. As bicycle mania gripped the French people and races of all kinds popped up across the country, new sporting newspapers and magazines appeared to feed the public’s insatiable thirst for all things cycling. The first and most successful of these publications was Le Vélo, launched in 1892 by editor Pierre Gifford. While the Dreyfus Affair was raging, Giffard, a staunch left-wing Dreyfusard, used his publication to publicly air his political views. This incensed a number of right-wing Anti-Dreyfusards who advertised in the magazine, including tyre manufacturer Eduard Michelin and car manufacturers Gustave Clement [“Kleh-mahn”], and Albert de Dion. In 1900, Dion withdrew his advertisements from Le Vélo and established his own publication, L’auto-Vélo, with the intention of driving his political rival out of business. L’auto-Vélo – later simply L’auto – was printed on yellow paper to distinguish it from Le Vélo’s green paper. This decision, as we will later see, was to have a surprising impact on the world of cycling.

Unfortunately, for its first two years of publication L’Auto-Vélo struggled to reach even a quarter of its rival’s circulation. In November 1902, Dion held an emergency meeting with his editor Henri Desgrange, [“Day-grahn-zje”], during which a young reporter named Géo Lefèvre suggested Desgrange sponsor a cross-country bicycle race to help promote the magazine. Though initially skeptical, Desgrange eventually agreed, and the first Tour de France was held in January 1903. Unlike the modern event, which features 21 150-mile stages over 23 days, the 1903 tour was held in six 250-miles stages over 19 days, with the competitors cycling from Paris to Lyon, Marseilles, Toulouse, Bordeaux, and Nantes before returning to Paris. In contrast to today’s international teams, the competitors were mostly French, with a smattering of Belgians, Germans, Swiss, and Italians among them. The race also had no alpine stages, the roads along the course were mostly unpaved, and the use of modern derailleur [“Duh-ray-aur”] gears was forbidden. Of the 60 competitors, only 21 finished the race, with the champion, Frenchman Maurice Garin, winning by over three hours. To Henri Desgrange and Albert de Dion’s surprise, the Tour de France was a massive hit, with nearly 100,000 spectators gathering at the finish line to cheer the competitors on. In the wake of the first race, circulation of L’Auto-Vélo went through the roof, soaring from 25,000 to 65,000. By the following year, Desgrange and Dion had finally succeeded in their goal of putting their rival, Le Vélo, out of business.

The Tour de France did much to stir up the French people’s interest and pride in their country, with historians Jean-Luc Boeuf and Yves Léonard claiming that most people had little idea of the shape and geography of France before maps of the race route began appearing in L’Auto-Vélo. The first Tour de France proved so popular that another race was immediately scheduled for the following year. The 1904 Tour, however, was to foreshadow much of the rampant cheating and corruption for which the race would later become infamous. Some competitors secretly received tows or rides from automobiles, while others hired accomplices to place glass or nails on the road or to beat up rival cyclists. After being assaulted by one such angry mob, 1903 Tour winner Maurice Garin declared:

“I’ll win the Tour de France provided I’m not murdered before we get to Paris.”

 And you thought cheating today was bad…

The Tour de France quickly became a French cultural institution, while L’Auto-Vélo continued to go from strength to strength, reaching a peak circulation of 85,000 by 1933. The publication, which was sympathetic to the Nazis and the collaborationist Vichy regime, remained in print until 1945, when it was shut down by the victorious Allies. The magazine was resurrected the following year under the name L’Equipe, or “The Team”, and remains in print to this day.

And that is the unlikely story of how one of France’s greatest political scandals led to one of her most beloved sporting events. While this bizarre origin is today long-forgotten, the legacy of the Dreyfus Affair lives on in the traditional yellow vest worn by the lead Tour de France cyclist – a colour chosen in 1919 to match the yellow pages of the Auto-Vélo magazine.

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Expand for References

 

O’Reilly, Terry & Tennant, Mike, The Age of Persuasion: How Marketing Ate Our Culture, Vintage Canada, 2010

 

Small Data: Are There Four Billion Tour de France Viewers? BBC News, July 14, 2014, https://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-magazine-monitor-28264183

 

Gendler, Nick, How the Anti-Semitic Dreyfus Affair Led to the Creation of the Tour de France, The Librarians, February 26, 2019, https://blog.nli.org.il/en/tour_de_france/

 

Nathan Abrams, The Secret Jewish History of the Tour de France, Forward, July 8, 2019, https://forward.com/culture/427212/the-secret-jewish-history-of-the-tour-de-france/

 

The Origin of the Tour de France, Curious Historian, January 2, 2020, https://curioushistorian.com/the-origin-of-the-tour-de-france

 

Schechter, Ronald, The Anti-Semitic Moment: a Tour of France in 1898, Jewish Quarterly review, Spring 2006, https://muse.jhu.edu/article/195906/summary

 

Dreyfus Affair, Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/event/Dreyfus-affair

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