The Tour de France Is a Tour of Macron’s Problems

France’s famous race is an international spectacle—but its roots are in local working-class culture.

French President Emmanuel Macron applauds France's Thibaut Pinot winning on the finish line of the fourteenth stage of the 106th edition of the Tour de France cycling race between Tarbes and Tourmalet Bareges, in Tourmalet Bareges on July 20, 2019.
French President Emmanuel Macron applauds France's Thibaut Pinot winning on the finish line of the fourteenth stage of the 106th edition of the Tour de France cycling race between Tarbes and Tourmalet Bareges, in Tourmalet Bareges on July 20, 2019. JEFF PACHOUD/AFP/Getty Images

2019 is the year that yellow became the new black in France. This fashion began with the gilets jaunes, the yellow-vested protesters whose demonstrations paralyzed France’s politics and imperiled the presidency of Emmanuel Macron. The fashion has now gotten a second wind with the iconic Tour de France. The race’s leader, wearer of the famous maillot jaune, or yellow jersey, is Julian Alaphilippe. If he is still wearing the jersey at the race’s conclusion this Sunday, Alaphilippe will be the first Frenchman to win the Tour since Bernard Hinault in 1985.

By a happy coincidence, this year marks not just the centenary of the maillot jaune but also the first anniversary of the gilet jaune. The jersey was introduced in 1919—when the Tour, born in 1903, picked up where it had left off prior to World War I—while protesters first donned the vest in late 2018. These anniversaries, it happens, share so many traits—from the political through the social to the ideological—that observers will be forgiven their sense of déjà vu. A sprint through the history of the Tour reveals the same political, ideological, and social factors that have combined to produce the gilets jaunes demonstrations.

When we think of “tour,” we mostly think of modern-day tourism. But this was not the sense of the word when the Tour was launched in 1903. Instead, the word was closer to the tour described in a late 19th-century grade-school book, Augustine Fouillée’s Le Tour de la France par deux enfants. The story follows two orphans as they wander across France in their search for home. The children learn that la patrie, in all of its stunning variety, is their true home—but they were also taught to remember their home would never be whole again until Alsace and Lorraine were reattached to it.

Similarly, while the inspiration for the modern Tour de France was largely commercial—hatched by Henri Desgrange, who was desperately seeking new readers for his magazine L’Auto—it was also pedagogical. Like the history text, the epic race aimed to reinforce, in the wake of foreign war and the civil war during the Dreyfus affair, a shaken sense of national identity. It was one of the tools, in Eugen Weber’s celebrated phrase, that turned peasants into Frenchmen.

This was, however, easier said than done. The first Tour stretched over more than two weeks and nearly 1,500 miles; during the interwar years, it grew to more than 3,000 miles and lasted more than three weeks. The press relished the race’s extreme demands and suffering of its contestants. Journalists outdid one another in their descriptions of the cyclists’ “ravaged” and “gaunt” faces. Cyclists who gave up or simply collapsed on the side of the road were “fallen comrades.” These phrases resonated in a nation that lost more than 1 million men in the trenches, as did Desgrange’s description of the ideal Tour as one in which “there was only one finisher.”

In 1924, however, the cyclists rebelled against their working conditions. That year, by way of adding to the event’s already superhuman demands, Desgrange had decided that racers had to be completely self-sufficient. This forced them to repair their bikes, or even fill their water bottles, on their own. Fed up with these degrading conditions, the Tour’s reigning maillot jaune, the Frenchman Henri Pélissier, climbed down from his bike and left the race in protest. With an incendiary phrase, the muckraking journalist Albert Londres, interviewing Pélissier, captured the reality of the vast socio-economic divisions in France. The valiant maillot jaune and his fellow cyclists, Londres declared, were nothing less than les forçats de la route—the convict laborers of the road.

Londres’s phrase captured a key reality: Cycling had long been the vocation and avocation of working-class Frenchmen. It was a sport manned and followed by blue-collar workers. Like their peers on assembly lines, cyclists, who were known as “pedal workers,” had to fight for the right to unionize. In fact, they even had to fight long and hard for the right to use bicycle gears. The Tour organizers thought such technology would cheapen the cyclist’s achievement by making cycling easier—another way of saying it would lessen the pain. The headline to Londres’s piece got it right: “Tour de France, tour de souffrance,” or “The Tour of France, the Tour of Suffering.”

During the so-called trente glorieuses, or 30 glorious years of economic growth from the 1940s to 1970s, cyclists were better compensated for their suffering. The Tour’s coffers deepened and the audience widened thanks to the growth of televised coverage. Cyclists were among the beneficiaries, winning guaranteed wages and a piece of the Tour’s earnings. Nevertheless, the shades of yellow between cyclists and protesters even now bleed into one another. During the greatest surge of the yellow vest protests, they billowed into a carnivalesque Tour de France, one that was organized from below, not above, unfolding in the same regions that host the Tour’s many stages. It is impossible to imagine La Grande Boucle, or the Great Loop, without the large throngs of spectators crowding and often spilling over the roadsides. The long wait to watch the blur of cyclists pass by in an eye’s wink is an excuse to mingle with the world. Similarly, the yellow vest demonstrations became a spectacle that blurred the line between participation and observation.

Most telling, however, was how the gilets jaunes subverted the Tour’s logic. From its conception, the Tour’s geographical loop served as a reminder that just like the Tour, politics begins and ends in Paris. But by shifting their protests from one provincial city to the next, the demonstrators subverted Paris’s centuries-old claim to political primacy. Moreover, the inhabitants of what the sociologist Christophe Guilluy calls the “periphery”—those social and geographical swaths of France left behind by the forces of globalization and threatened by redundancy in every sense of the word—also carried their message to Paris. With the protesters’ invasion of the Place de l’Étoile and the Champs-Élysées—the triumphal route for the Tour’s last day—the gilet jaune replaced, if only for a tear gas- and smoke-filled day, the maillot jaune.

From their peak during the early months of 2019, the demonstrations have faded in size and intensity. This decline in part explains why the various organizing committees decided not to interrupt this year’s race by blocking roads or traffic circles. But this decision was also shaped by their shared affinities: The wearers of the gilet jaune tend to be those along the roadsides cheering on the wearer of the maillot jaune. Signs have sprung up along the Tour’s route that conflate the two yellows, while gilet jaune websites continue to insist on the common ties between the two events. Indeed, Alaphilippe’s prospects have prompted the demonstrators, rather than preventing them, to exploit the Tour to political ends. The cyclist’s modest background certainly lend themselves to this treatment. The son of a traveling musician and whose education ended with a vocational degree, Alaphilippe has captured the public imagination by his bold and, at times, reckless performance.

Not surprisingly, a number of the gilet jaune websites have called on their followers to wear their yellow vests and assemble in Paris for the last stage of the Tour, which, as tradition has it, will take place down the Champs-Élysées. At the same time, Macron has promised to be there to greet either Alaphilippe or Thibaut Pinot, another French cyclist at the top of the peloton, or main group of riders. The historical significance is difficult to exaggerate. Ever since Charles de Gaulle greeted the cyclists during the Tour’s 1960 rendition—he did not have far to travel since the Tour’s itinerary included (quite deliberately) de Gaulle’s hometown of Colombey-les-deux-Églises—the participation of French presidents in the race has been as traditional as American presidents throwing the ceremonial first pitch in the baseball season. Inevitably, some have done it with greater flair and fervor than others. In 1985, François Mitterrand, camera in hand, watched the peloton pass through the Vercors—the Alpine range that, not coincidentally, was also an iconic site of the French Resistance. Later, Jacques Chirac satisfied himself by sampling beers along the Tour’s route, while Nicolas Sarkozy spent an entire stage with his head outside the window of the official car, all the while providing a running commentary the race.

Though not to the same degree as Sarkozy, Macron is an amateur cyclist and aficionado of the Tour. At the end of the race’s 14th stage, he appeared in the Pyrenean town of Bagnères-de-Bigorre in order to congratulate Alaphilippe on his victory that day. He later waded into the small crowd, where he was inevitably questioned about police actions during the gilets jaunes demonstrations. Macron defended the police response as appropriate given the “abnormal” violence of the radical fringe of the protests. Macron seems no less determined, come July 28, to return the Champs-Élysées to its “normal” function as the triumphal route not just of the leader of the Tour but of the leader of France. When the London bookies place the odds on this particular contest, Macron will be considered the strong favorite.

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at the University of Houston’s Honors College and the author of a forthcoming book on Simone Weil.


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