Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Dreyfus Affair & the Tour de France

Alfred Dreyfus of Dreyfus Affair fame

It's well known (amongst bike nerds) that the Tour de France was started by a newspaper as a way to boost sales. What's less known is the fact that the Dreyfus Affair led to the very creation of said newspaper.

For those unfamiliar with the Dreyfus Affair, it can be summed-up thus; in 1894 a Jewish French army captain named Alfred Dreyfus was sentenced to life imprisonment for selling military secrets to ze Germans. The only problem was, he hadn't. Evidence of this came to light but was suppressed by the army. Word of the cover-up began to leak and the whole thing became a shit storm between those that supported Dreyfus (the Dreyfusards) and those who didn't (wait for it...the anti-Dreyfusards (who were also generally anti-Semites)). Eventually (five years later) he was set free and all charges against him were shown to be baseless. You can read more about it here.

At this time, Le Vélo was France's leading quotidian newspaper. It was a Liberal rag that supported Dreyfus. Unfortunately for Le Vélo, many of its advertisements were paid for by evil industrialists who, of course, were anti-Dreyfusards.

All this came to a head at the Auteuil horse-race track in 1899 when there was a brawl between Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards. The melée included Pierre Giffard, editor of Le Vélo (Dreyfusard) and Comte Jules-Albert de Dion (anti-Dreyfusard and one of the evil industrialists who paid for advertising in Le Vélo). The Comte even got sentenced to 15 days in gaol for hitting Émile Loubet, the President of France, on the head with a walking stick.

Anyway, led by the Comte, several of the evil industrialists pulled their advertising and did what any self-respecting magnate would do; they created a newspaper, which they named L'Auto-Vélo.

The rival newspapers

In 1903, two things happened. Firstly, a court ruled that the name L'Auto-Vélo was too similar to Le Vélo, so they changed it simply to L'Auto.

Secondly, as sales were waning, L'Auto decided to hold a bike race to promote the newspaper. This was nothing new. In fact, Le Vélo ran several races, including Paris-Roubaix. That said, the idea to tour the country was new. Further, stages were longer and the prize money was much greater than in other races.

Thus was born the Tour de France. The race captured the imagination of the public and boosted L'Auto sales. In fact, it was so successful in that respect that the very next year, Le Vélo went out of business.

L'Auto went from strength to strength and continues to this day, all be it under a different name (L'Équipe).

The yellow jersey is also a result of the newspaper, which was printed on yellow paper.

So there you have it; if poor old Alfred Dreyfus hadn't been wrongfully convicted, there would be no Tour de France. I guess in this case the cloud had a yellow lining...

Maurice Garin enters Paris as the winner of the inaugural Tour de France


  1. I could write a book in response to the issues raised here! Why doesn't Gina Rinehart start her own newspaper, like the French thugs did, instead of taking over the only approximation to an independent press we have in Australia. Secondly, the Dreyfus affair was much more complicated, and epitomises the deep-seated anti-Semitism of France to this day. Just read "The hare with amber eyes" to get an expansive view. Unlike many European nations, France has never come to terms with its anti-Semitism, so it remains, disguised, until push comes to shove, by the thin veneer of what passes for civilization

    1. Hi tonyg and thanks for your comment. I realise that the Dreyfus affair is a complicated issue and it was not my intention to trivialise it. I simply wanted to demonstrate the link between this historical event and the inception of the Tour de France. I apologise if I caused any offence.
      As to Gina Rinehart, I guess the editors/board of Fairfax Media don't have the moral fortitude (or perhaps the means) of those in charge of Le Vélo.