How the Dreyfus Affair Gave Rise to the Tour de France

February 28, 2019 | Nick Gendler
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France in the 1890s saw both a bicycling craze and the Dreyfus Affair, in which the Jewish officer Alfred Dreyfus was framed for passing military secrets to Germany, sparking an intense controversy. In 1899, a few years after Dreyfus’s conviction, Emil Loubert, known to sympathize with him, became president of France. Nick Gendler writes:

On June 3, 1899, the French supreme court overturned the original court-martial judgment against Dreyfus and ordered a retrial. Tensions were high when, the following day, Loubert accepted an invitation to watch horse-racing at the Auteuil Race Course. Unlike the Longchamp racecourse which was frequented by the lower classes, . . . Auteuil was the playground of the wealthy, monarchist, anti-Republican, and mainly anti-Dreyfusard classes. Loubert’s presence was seen as provocative and he was confronted by hordes outraged by the order for a retrial. The demonstration turned violent almost as soon as the president took his seat. Among those who were arrested following the fracas was the wealthy industrialist Jules Albert Compte de Dion. . . .

Pierre Gifford, the editor of the [sports] newspaper Le Vélo [“The Bicycle”], criticized the demonstration. . . . Politically, Gifford was on the left and wrote scathing articles criticizing Dion and other anti-Dreyfusards, despite many of them being important advertisers in his newspaper. Gifford’s reporting of the demonstration incensed Dion and other industrialists such as Eduard Michelin, a vigorous anti-Semite, and Gustave Clement. . . .

Dion and his allies decided to withdraw their advertising and to launch their own rival paper, L’Auto-Vélo. . . . In November 1902, as the newspaper, [now simply called] L’Auto, struggled with circulation at consistently around a quarter of that of Le Vélo, . . . a young reporter by the name of Geo Lefevre, allegedly desperate to suggest something, spontaneously floated the idea of the Tour de France as a promotional enterprise.

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