From Defeat to the New France: Sport and Society, Cycling and Everyday Life, 1940–1959
From Defeat to the New France: Sport and Society, Cycling and Everyday Life, 1940–1959
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter tells why the years of the Occupation and Vichy were considered torment by historians of sports and public policy. It states that during the war years, France felt significant disruption in sporting activities brought about by either the absence of able-bodied men who served in the war; or by logistical difficulties in areas such as transport, fuel and electricity. It goes on to say that in terms of practicality, cycling faced a period of challenge in the years of war and during the Fourth Republic. While cycling flourished as a mode of personal transport in the 1940s, the economic growth in the following decade allowed households to explore other modes of transport. Furthermore, this chapter discusses how the Vichy and Fourth Republic tried to manage sport and cycling in general through ideologies, institutions and policies. The chapter also highlights how the Tour de France redefined France's identity in the 1940s and 1950s.
The period of the Occupation and of government by the Etat français, based in the town of Vichy, from 1940 to 1944 still provokes strong emotions among French people. The political and social divisions between French citizens that were exposed so cruelly by the choices they were confronted with after the rapid defeat of France in 1939–40 often reflected ideological stances that had developed during the politically charged 1930s, and once France had been liberated, politics and society negotiated a difficult pathway through what the cultural historian Henry Rousso has described as a ‘Vichy syndrome’ (Rousso, 1987). Occupied by an invading army, torn between resistance and collaboration of all kinds, divided into two geographical regions by a demarcation line, France was indeed during these Vichy years in torment, and ‘torment’ is the word chosen by the historians of sport and public policy Marianne Amar and Jean-Louis Lescot to describe the situation of sport under the Occupation and at the Liberation (Amar and Lescot, 2007). During the war years there was significant disruption to the normal workings of the system of sporting activity in France, caused either simply by the absence of able-bodied men (serving in the Free French forces, or in POW camps, or undertaking compulsory labour service in Germany) or by difficulties of logistics (transport, fuel, electricity or other requirements for hosting sporting events), but the German and Vichy authorities were at pains to encourage sport as a means of suggesting a certain ‘normality’ in everyday life (Arnaud, 2002). Major sports such as football, rugby and cycling thus continued to function as best they could during the troubled period of the Occupation and during the generally joyous but sometimes traumatic months of the Liberation, which were perhaps even more disruptive of events than the war years themselves (Dine, 2001: 99–114; Hare, 2003: 22–25). Some iconic sporting competitions either occurred in truncated form or, in the case of the Tour de France, simply ceased altogether, their reappearance in the years following Liberation, the end of the war (p.130) and the foundation of France's new regime of the Fourth Republic being noted by all as proof of France's return to its own traditions and to a true normality.
But the influence of the Vichy regime on sport was not an entirely negative disruption of the practicalities of competition and a distortion of the ideals and philosophy of sport itself in the service of an ideology that emphasized order, responsibility and discipline in society and politics, and that saw sport as a means of exemplifying such ‘positive’ values in support of France's new national motto, Travail, Famille, Patrie. Precisely because the Vichy regime was interventionist in society and economics, in furtherance of its ‘conservative revolution’ and goal of French ‘national renaissance’, it developed the trend set in the 1930s by the Popular Front of setting up public policies and public institutions to foster sport and leisure. The French state's interest in and involvement in sport and leisure was to reach its fullest intensity during the Fifth Republic (1958–), as we shall discuss in the following chapter, but during the Fourth Republic (1946–58) which replaced the Vichy regime, even relatively un-interventionist governments became increasingly aware of the need for the encouragement of sport and healthy living.
In terms of practical, everyday cycling the years of the war and of the Fourth Republic were – although in many ways the hey-day of utility cycling – a period of challenge for la petite Reine: during the austerity of the Occupation and of the late 1940s, the bicycle flourished as a mode of personal transport, but as the French economy gradually regained prewar levels of production and unheard-of rates of growth in the 1950s, rising prosperity allowed households to experiment with other forms of mobility. Rising ownership of motorcyles, cars and the motorized bicycle know as the Vélo-Solex, for example, increasingly distracted French citizens from cycling as a practice of everyday life, even if the Tour de France and other professional racing remained as significant – if not more so – than ever.
In this chapter we shall, inescapably, discuss the history of the relations between the Tour de France and its owner, L'Auto newspaper, and the authorities of Vichy and subsequently of the new Fourth Republic, considering why the Tour did not run during the war and reappeared only in 1947. Secondly, we shall consider how Vichy and the Fourth Republic attempted to manage sport and cycling in general through ideologies, institutions and policies. Thirdly, the huge popularity of the Tour as it redefined France's identity in the late 1940s and 1950s, and the attachment of millions of French citizens to the French heroes of the Tour during the Fourth Republic, merits some discussion of quite what (p.131) champions such as Jean Robic and Louison Bobet represented culturally and socially in a country questioning its own worth and modernity. Fourthly, we shall discuss how popular culture – in film, in the form of the Vélo-Solex and in the form of invented cycle leisure/sport practices involving (sub-)urban space – was beginning to reflect the difficulties now being experienced by cycling, threatened by the car and prosperity, by its old-fashioned image, and sometimes symbolic more of France's past than of its future.
The Tour and L'Auto during the Second World War
Although the running of the Tour de France was suspended from 1940 until 1947, the newspaper that had conceived the event and that organized it each year continued to function during the Occupation, and at the Liberation was transformed into L'Equipe. In the difficult times of both the Occupation and of the return to government by the French themselves during the Liberation and the purges that accompanied it, the behaviour and activities of L'Auto and then L'Equipe, as ‘guardians’ of France's national sport and emblematic annual cycle race, were under close scrutiny.
L'Auto becomes L'auto-Soldat
On 16 September 1939, some two weeks after the declaration of war, L'Auto changed its name to L'Auto-Soldat, promising to place the newspaper's priority on ‘the struggle for human independence’ and the ‘crusade of free men’ that had recently been joined against Nazi Germany (Lagrue, 2004: 85). The rhetoric of L'Auto-Soldat echoed that of L'Auto in 1914, when Desgrange had famously exhorted Frenchmen to throw themselves into the fight against the ‘bastard Prussians’ (Desgrange, 1914), but neither the newspaper nor France were in the same situation of national unity and enthusiasm for revenge on Germany as had reigned at the start of the First World War. The management of L'Auto was now under the care of Jacques Goddet, the son of Desgrange's initial business partner Victor Goddet, and Desgrange himself was seriously ill. France's armed and political resistance to Germany was short-lived, with capitulation coming on 16 June 1940, accompanied by the creation of the Vichy state, which replaced the Third Republic and was led by the octogenarian Marshal Philippe Pétain, hero of Verdun in the First World War, but now inclined towards cooperation with the victorious Germans. Desgrange died on 16 August 1940, being spared the difficulty of seeing his newspaper (p.132) become increasingly mired in the compromises and collaborationist arrangements required of the press during the Occupation, but not before L'Auto had published an ‘Appel aux sportifs’ in which it called for realistic and disciplined acceptance of France's predicament. This was the first overt example of what was to become L'Auto's much-debated and much-criticized ‘collaborationist’ stance during the années noires of the Occupation, discussed accessibly by Lagrue (2004: 85–92) and Bæuf and Léonard (2003: 117–32). Even after more than sixty years of discussion and research, and a useful recent volume by the sports journalism historian Jacques Seray (2011), it is hard to judge just how collaborationist L'Auto was during the period 1940–44. The ambiguity of the newspaper's actions and declarations is all of a piece with the ambivalence, confusion and changeability of French politics, society and culture as a whole under the much-denigrated Etat français, and the journalists themselves, masters of rhetorical ambiguity, often couched their texts in a style that offers varying readings.
The ‘Appel aux sportifs’ of 17 June 1940 is a case in point: it is not signed and in many ways does little more than echo a predominant theme – le maréchalisme – in French political and popular opinion of the day, which was support for the sacrifice of Marshal Pétain in offering his services to protect France from further conflict. The ‘Appel aux sportifs’ suggests, for example, that sportsmen and women understand better than others the need to bow to ‘unjust adversity’ because: ‘La rude école du sport leur a appris à apprécier à sa juste valeur la force qu'il faut pour regarder la vérité en face, quelle qu'elle soit et pour se soumettre à ses conséquences.’1 Such phraseology admits of both collaborationist and more positive readings, as France's situation is presented as unjust at the same time as readers are apparently enjoined to accept its defeat. Goddet was serving in the army when the ‘Appel’ was published, and Desgrange was too ill to contribute to L'Auto, so it is generally assumed that the piece was written by the Germanophile Charles Faroux. L'Auto had been founded by Desgrange as a – purportedly – apolitical newspaper, but during the Occupation its path veered uncomfortably towards political engagement, as Goddet's maréchalisme became obvious in its columns, and as, perhaps more damningly, it published announcements imposed by the Germans.2 Goddet himself vigorously defended himself against accusations of collaborationism, presenting a version of events – notably in his autobiography L'Equipée belle – that acknowledged his support for Pétain but stressed his responsibility to maintain the business of L'Auto in order to keep his workers in employment during a difficult time (Goddet, 1991). Goddet was also able to justify his actions by (p.133) emphasizing the difficulties he faced after the sale of a controlling share of L'Auto's capital to German financial interests: not only was he under pressure from the German authorities in Paris, but his business was owned by the Germans!
The Circuit de France of La France socialiste
One of the principal non-collaborationist achievements of L'Auto during the Occupation was – perversely, given the race's importance to the finances of the group – not to run the Tour de France. Goddet had been organizing the Tour since he replaced Desgrange as ‘patron’ of the event in 1936, and as late as August 1939 had outlined plans for the race of 1940, but from the summer of the phoney war until 1947 the Tour was put into hibernation, despite considerable pressure from the Germans and from the Vichy state. The popular success of the Tour during the 1930s had transformed it into a symbol of national identity and normality, and thus it was in the interests of the occupying forces in northern France and of the collaborationist government of the south that the Tour should be organized to give the appearance of a country accepting its new condition. When the Tour was finally run in the austerity of 1947, it was hailed as proof of France's return to being herself, marking, if need there was, how the race's absence in the intervening years had demonstrated the nation's estrangement from its traditional values. In the spirit of the times, Goddet was initially in two minds over the running of the Tour under the Occupation, tempted to believe that the race might be able to stimulate the French cycle industry and thus improve the difficult living conditions of many workers, at the same time as providing its traditional examples of effort, discipline and courage (Marchand, 2002: 49–51). He was also aware of the propaganda that could be made by the Germans if the Tour were to be held and was mindful of the further tarnishing of the reputation of L'Auto that would ensue.
Serge Laget has briefly summarized the ‘ersatz’ Tours that were run during the Occupation (Laget, 2003), and it is clear how they combined complex conflicting motivations of differing interpretations of duty, patriotism, honour and self-and national interest, played out in cycling, France's national sport. Piecing together the treatments of Lagrue (2004: 90–92), Thompson (2006: 78–81) and Bæuf and Léonard (2003: 126–32) allows us to provide a summary of the events. In 1941 Goddet resisted pressures from the occupier-run Paris-Soir newspaper to stage the Tour jointly, and then in 1942 similarly rejected a proposal from the collaborationist newspaper La France socialiste. The principal sports (p.134) correspondent of La France socialiste, Jean Leulliot, then undertook alone the organization of a six-stage race christened le Circuit de France, which ran from 28 September until 4 October 1942, visiting Paris, Poitiers, Le Mans, Limoges, Clermont-Ferrand, Saint-Etienne, Lyon and Dijon. Sixty-nine riders started the 1,650 km race, which was run over both the occupied and unoccupied zones of France, and which earned the approval of the collaborationist prime minister, Pierre Laval, who was keen to stress the ‘national’ dimensions of the competition. The journalists of La France socialiste were at great pains to emphasize the differences – as well as the flattering similarities – between their race and the Tour, as the Circuit was designed to reflect the sporting and social agendas of the Vichy government. The Circuit's major obstacles were thus presented not as the distances and mountains of the route, but more as the challenges of a simple non-commercialized race run under spartan conditions of rationing (riders were accommodated in dormitories rather than hotels, food was not to be wasted, fancy componentry such as lightweight inner tubes was not to be used). The Circuit involved multi-national teams, whose varied members were to work together to achieve glory in their common profession. Ironically, the Circuit was organized at a time when the Etat français was increasingly losing the support of ordinary French citizens, who had been shocked by the recent introduction of compulsory labour periods in Germany for French workers (the STO system). The Circuit's stress on effort and austerity, and on Vichy values such as ‘national revival’ and ‘corporatist pride’, served more to remind the French of their difficulties than to inspire them to greater loyalty to the Etat français.The Circuit was essentially a failure, as it struggled to overcome the material difficulties it publicized as the challenges the riders were supposed to master in their racing. Despite political attempts to present it as a success and to encourage the organization of a second competition in 1943, the changing tide of the war and of politics and society within France meant that the Circuit of La France socialiste was the only ‘national’ race run during the period of the Occupation.
L'Auto during, the Liberation
Jean Leulliot of La France socialiste, organizer of the Circuit de France, was executed for collaboration during the épuration period that accompanied and followed France's liberation in 1944–45. The épuration (purge) was a confused mixture of official and unofficial justice and reprisals meted out to people of all walks of life who were deemed to have overly sympathized with, or assisted, the German occupiers. Goddet (p.135) was unsympathetic, suggesting that Leulliot had committed ‘high treason’ and deserved his fate.3 Goddet himself escaped the épuraticn, despite considerable dissatisfaction among some who thought that he had not done enough to distance himself from the Germans and Vichy. The fact that he had refused to run the Tour was Goddet's major saving grace, as well as his toleration of the use of some of L'Auto's facilities – the printing presses for example – for resistance activities. In general Goddet was deemed to have done his best in difficult circumstances, particularly the German ownership of L'Auto created by Raymond Patenôtre's sale of his shares in the newspaper to a German consortium in early 1941 (Lagrue, 2004: 91–92). In August 1944, however, L'Auto fell victim to a purge of newspapers rather than individuals, implemented by the Provisional French government as part of its attempt to punish press groups that had profited from the Occupation and to remove the influence of collaborationist media. L'Auto was initially banned on 17 August 1944 and saw its premises and equipment confiscated, and then on 30 September 1944 a new law was implemented that prohibited newspapers that had continued publication during the Occupation from ever being authorized to reappear. This effectively sealed the fate of L'Auto, but Goddet was eventually able to create a new sports newspaper from the ruins of Desgrange's pre-war commercial empire in the form of L'Equipe.
Government restrictions on the press and shortages of paper and newsprint prevented the publication of newspapers dealing with sport or other non-essential matters until February 1946, when a number of new titles tried to win the attentions of the sporting public. Sports was a communist-inspired sports paper, closely linked to the communist resistance forces of 1940–45, which survived until the early 1950s; Elans was a short-lived (just 77 numbers) paper with socialist sympathies that quickly became absorbed by the much more successful L'Equipe, whose first number was published on 28 February 1946, and which continues today as France's only sports newspaper. L'Equipe was staffed by a variety of journalists of most political persuasions, but the general tenor of the newspaper was discreetly right-of-centre.4 Initially Goddet had to take something of a back-room role, as legislation prohibited over-direct links between the new press of the Liberation and France's reconstruction, and that of the Occupation. Just as in the 1890s, the sporting press became an arena of rivalry between Left and Right, a rivalry that expressed itself in the classic form of competing ‘national’ cycle races staged in spring and summer 1946.5 The ultimate goal of both Sports and L'Equipe was, of course, the organization of the first post-war Tour de France, and the more successful Paris–Monaco, sub-titled ‘Le petit Tour (p.136) de France’, managed by L'Equipe in July 1946 outshone the ‘Ronde de France’ (essentially Bordeaux–Grenoble) organized by Sports (Bæuf and Léonard, 2003: 138–40). In June 1947 the government finally awarded the rights to the post-war Tour to the company that managed the velodrome of the Parc des Princes, which was backed by the newspaper Le Parisien-Libéré and L'Equipe. This was the result of complicated financial and political machinations on the part of Goddet and the owner of the Parisien-Libéré, Emilien Amaury, who was also co-owner with Goddet of the Société du Parc des Princes. Amaury was a highly influential figure in the Liberation period, transforming his past as a member of the Resistance and his participation in governing bodies of the press into real commercial opportunities that would cement the future success of both himself and Goddet. By offering his support – in return for 50 per cent of the action – to Goddet's claim to run the Tour in 1947, Amaury assuaged the concerns of the left-wing president of the Fédération nationale de la presse, Albert Bayet, about the suitability of L'Equipe to be in charge of France's national race. The Tour of 1947 was a surprising success, even in the highly charged atmosphere of a year during which France was suffering ever more from the political and social tensions created by the looming Cold War. Christopher Thompson points out how the race was marked by a ‘hopeful consensus’ that it could somehow mark French recovery, and details how the symbolism of the Tour's visit to the ruined Normandy city of Caen demonstrated both France's suffering and its resilience (Thompson, 2006: 83–85).
Sport and cycling under Vichy and the Fourth Republic
Vichy's approach to sport and leisure was a serious one. The development of the sports–media–industry complex since the 1890s and before was seen as having produced an essentially frivolous association between (healthy) physical activity and popular entertainment, and the Etat français was keen to take matters in hand, channelling the energies of French citizens into more wholesome and more purposeful avenues of sport and leisure. Jean-Louis Gay-Lescot (1991: 83) has described Vichy sports policy as ‘une nationalisation coûteuse dont la finalité profonde déborde largement de la seule générosité sociale ou l'hygiénisme’, and stresses how Vichy's ambition was not simply to take over the measures of the Popular Front (themselves an adaptation of existing structures – see Lassus, 2000) but to introduce a new understanding of sport in education and society.
Under Vichy, there was an attempt to create public policies and effective state institutions governing sporting activities. We have seen how the leftwing Popular Front in 1936–38 began to structure the state's involvement in sport and leisure in favour of healthy lifestyles and nonspectacularized commercialized sport, but Vichy's objectives were slightly different in their motivations. Robert O. Paxton has summarized Vichy's approach to sport as centring on the need not to effect a revolution, but to change the course of a revolution in sport badly managed by the Third Republic (2002: 20). For Paxton, Vichy recognized the ‘sportification’ of society that had occurred between 1870 and 1940, but considered that the parliamentary regime – despite the interventionism of the Popular Front – had allowed sport to develop in ways that vitiated its positive influence on society; simplified to the extreme, this view is expressed by the remark that the ‘la France de l'apéro et des congrès’ had lost the war by neglecting the proper development of sport.6 For Paxton, the gravamen of Vichy's complaint was that sport had evolved during the Third Republic to privilege public enjoyment rather than the higher interest of society (2002: 20). This focus on sport as spectacle and spectator sport had created too many spectators and too few participants, too much individualism and too little social discipline, too much brain and too little brawn, too many championships and too little gymnastics. Paxton points out that, although the Popular Front had indeed taken an interest in sport and society from 1936, the emphasis had been on sport as a right, whereas under Vichy sport was seen more as a duty. Seen in such terms, it is perhaps unsurprising that Vichy's attempts to reform French society's relationship ended essentially in failure; not only did the reforming zeal of the Etat français not sweep away the established bodies and practices of the management of sport in France, but the public's enthusiasm for passively consuming sport resisted the idea of getting out and getting fit. As Paxton concludes: ‘As far as sport was concerned, popular culture was stronger than Vichy’ (2002: 21). The principal structure governing sports policy during the Vichy period was the Commissariat général à l'éducation générale et aux sports (CGEGS), headed from July 1940 until April 1942 by the famous pre-war tennis star Jean Borotra and from May 1942 until the Liberation in 1944 by Colonel Joseph Pascot.
Vichy and cycling
The CGEGS had a three-fold objective of restructuring, rendering more ethical and stimulating sporting activities. In cycling this meant (p.138) attempting to create some order in an activity divided between sport of various kinds and levels, and touring and leisure; addressing the excesses of professional racing; and encouraging the various cycling bodies and federations to develop new initiatives. Structurally, the CGEGS addressed itself to the issue of the various federative organizations claiming to represent different strands of cycling. The ambition of having a single federation for any single sport immediately foundered against the multifarious nature of cycling, as the governing bodies for racing, cycle touring and touring in general all had authority over different kinds of cycling. The UVF and the FSGT represented racing, and the FFSC and the TCF represented touring. As Poyer (2002) has outlined, the plan to encourage the co-existence of these different organizations within a single Fédération française de cyclisme (FFC) was inherently problematic from the start, and the FFSC in particular, founded in 1923 with values strongly opposed to commercialized cycling, dragged its feet in joining the FFC so effectively that by April 1942, when Pascot took charge at the CGEGS, Vichy's revolution of sport was forced to recognize that activités de plein air such as cycle touring could never cohabit institutionally with professional cycle racing and would therefore need their own federation in the guise of the Fédération française de cyclotourisme (FFCT).
In terms of the ethical dimensions of French cycling, what Vichy was concerned about was the morality of professionalism. Despite his own distaste for professional sport, Borotra and the CGEGS were obliged to agree short-term exceptions to the objective of amateurism in French sport for football, boxing, pelota and cycling (Poyer, 2002: 296). Over a period of three years, the ranks of the some 700 French professional riders were supposed to be reduced to 326, selected by the federation, but the UVF's strategies of resistance – for example, creating a category of ‘trainee’ pro-riders in order to circumvent the numerus clausus imposed by the CGEGS – protected the professional domain. By 1942 Pascot was ready to accept the argument that a branch of professional racing was necessary in France in order to represent the country abroad, and furthermore, in a tacit acceptance of France's long tradition of overlap between amateurism and professionalism, fudged the issue of amateurs being awarded prizes of cycling componentry directly convertible to cash. As well as professionalism, another ‘moral’ issue of interest to the CGEGS was the participation of women in touring and racing, and various measures were taken to actually discourage female cycling.
Overall, the efforts of Vichy in the field of French cycling were ineffectual, as the wave of reforming zeal broke firstly on the rocks of (p.139) cycling's fragmented disciplines and, secondly, on the inertias and resistances of governing bodies loath to see long-held prerogatives and traditional policies confiscated by the state. Even in the last months of the Occupation during 1944, when the Etat français radicalized its policies, cycling resisted pressures to change. In terms of the actual practice of cycling during the period, it seems that the years of Occupation led to a decline in the numbers of clubs and active cyclists: on the eve of war in 1939, the UVF boasted some 1,500 clubs and 25,000 licenciés (registered riding members), but by 1943 the FFC registered a mere 650 clubs and 900 licenciés and in touring, between 1939 and 1944, the number of clubs fell from 240 to 160 and of licenciés from 9,000 to 5,000. Structurally, Vichy's ambition of having a single federation for each sport and a single club in each town failed in cycling, as governing bodies argued special cases and as individual clubs refused to merge. Ethically and philosophically, Vichy failed to impose its ideas on amateurism, but the single innovation that it did manage to introduce was a conceptual one: an ‘architecture’ of governing bodies in sport – in cycling the FFC and the FFCT – that reflected a categorization devised by the state rather than by essentially private interests such as the UVF or the TCF/FFSC (Paxton, 2002: 23; Poyer, 2002: 299). Jean-Pierre Rioux has suggested how Marshal Pétain's reported pleasure in watching children undertake plein air exercise was an ‘hommage sénile à une jeunesse bucolique’, symbolic in its pointlessness of the ‘grand silence d'indifférence puis l'hostilité des Français’ which marked the ultimate failure of Vichy's voluntarist approach to sport (Rioux, 1991: 3); in cycling as in sport and exercise overall, Vichy brought some changes of note, but little real lasting impact.
The Fourth Republic: institutions and sport
In the realm of sport, the Liberation and the post-war era opened in France with a symbolic event: the condemnation of the sports newspaper L'Auto and a ban on its publication. The Provisional government was punishing L'Auto's continued appearance during the Occupation and its apparent compliance with and support for collaboration. As in so many areas of culture, politics and society, the France of the Liberation hoped to create a new, positive role for sport, abandoning the interference of the Vichy state in favour of a definition of sport as service public, providing some subsidies to the private sector sports associations, clubs and federations in return for oversight of their activities.
As we saw, L'Auto was soon reborn as L'Equipe, the Tour de France was relaunched in 1947, and the sport–press complex of the inter-war (p.140) years continued to foster sport-spectacle. Elections to the governing bodies of sports federations in 1945 tended to reappoint those who had served during Vichy and before, and although leisure and sport were encouraged in the 1946 Constitution, it was sport libre rather than sport dirigé that seemed likely to prevail. The rest of the Fourth Republic followed this pattern of contradictions, as governments hesitated between a more interventionist approach to sport and a return to the freedoms sport had enjoyed before Vichy. Where attempts were made to guide the development of sport, they usually failed, thwarted by inertia, confusion and lack of funds, and the continued strength of commercial sporting ventures such as the Tour, the Six Jours de Paris and other popular professional sports.
As the historian of sport in the Fourth Republic Marianne Amar has noted, in November 1947 an opinion poll revealed that 31 per cent of French people felt themselves to be sportif (1987: 60). On closer inspection, however, this quite positive figure was revealed to reflect an interest in sport as entertainment, rather than a commitment to the actual practice of sport. Another survey revealed that, in 1950, only 5 per cent of French citizens were signed-up members of the major sports federations – and therefore practising a sport – and by 1958 this had only increased to 5.8 per cent. Such stagnation of real involvement in the major Olympic sports of interest to the state reflected the feeling of governments that encouraging sporting activity in the general population was a fruitless endeavour during the 1940s and 1950s: what the French people were interested in was casual leisure sport or sport-loisir (membership of non-Olympic sports federations rose by 50 per cent between 1950–58), and sport-spectacle.
However, the Fourth Republic started with a real interest in the potential benefits of participatory sport. Amar has shown that as early as 1944 sport was seen as a remedy for the privations of the Occupation exemplified by rationing and illnesses such as tuberculosis that had reappeared as a result of wartime hardships. In the early post-war years a kind of consensus seemed to reign within government and among those who thought about sport in the new Republic that sport was something that could serve France favourably in ‘improving’ its population. Amar describes this belief as a kind of ‘union sacrée’ around ‘sport éducatif’, sport mobilized as a means of strengthening the bodies of the workers needed to rebuild the nation, or of inculcating the moral values that would reduce perceived increases in juvenile delinquency (1987: 8–16). Such views on the usefulness of sport in educating society and serving the common good arose most noticeably in the early years of reconstruction (p.141) when the mobilization of sport was just one element in a ‘productivist euphoria’. As the economy, society and politics returned to some normality in the early 1950s the notion of sport as part of a productivist vision for France declined somewhat, although implicitly the failure of the progressive Langevin–Wallon plan for reforming education in 1947 pushed much of the burden of improving the country's common values, hygiene, moral values and health on to sport (Amar, 1987: 21). Government discourses on the importance of sport – athletes were to be ‘ambassadors of renewal’ – were not backed by clear policies or significant funding: during the late 1940s and early 1950s some sports attempted to create more reliable sources of finance from forms of betting, flouting official policies of the state's tutelage of the secteur associatif privé.
The practice of cycling in the Fourth Republic
Cycling was not immune to these difficulties and contradictions, although all forms of cycling continued to flourish as best they could in the fraught circumstances of economic, social and political reconstruction, and, in the case of ‘utility’ cycling, in the face of growing competition from affordable motorized transport such as vélomoteurs and small cars. In the late 1940s cycling as transport was obviously of continued importance, as disruption to public transport and shortages of cars and petrol made ordinary citizens even more reliant on la petite Reine. Leisure cycling, likewise, was encouraged, as people in the major cities fell back on their bicycles as a means of escape during days off and rare holidays. But from about 1950 sales of bicycles began to decline, as increasing prosperity and France's rapid modernization led cyclists of all classes to abandon regular cycling as transport, leisure or vacation for mopeds, motorcycles and the gradually more affordable motor car.
Cycle sport in its many and varied forms was also able quickly to adapt to the new Republic. In essence, cycling continued as before the war, having been relatively little affected by Vichy, and managed to steer its own course through the late 1940s and 1950s without paying much heed to the confusion of government approaches to sport. The venerable Union Vélocipédique de France, founded in 1881, was reformed in 1946 as the Fédération française de cyclisme and reassumed its stewardship of amateur and professional cycling, but it was principally private-sector commercial sport – mainly in the form of L'Equipe and its control over many important races and competitions – that drove developments in cycling during the period.
Racing at the Vélodrome d'hiver, which was owned by L'Equipe, (p.142) resumed quickly, with the first post-war Six Jours de Paris being staged in 1946. The Six Jours continued with success until 1958, a year before the demolition of the velodrome, and other classic events organized by L'Equipe such as Bordeaux–Paris and Paris–Roubaix renewed their popularity with the sporting public. 1946 also saw the staging of a race around France – the ‘Ronde de France’ – that was intended to replace the Tour de France, in abeyance because of the sanctions taken against L'Auto for its ambivalent behaviour during the Occupation, but this event met with little popular approval. The reintroduction of the Tour de France itself in 1947 marked the resumption of ‘service as usual’ in professional cycling and, indeed, introduced a period in which cycling as sport-spectacle, fuelled by French successes in the Tour and the population's desire for distractions from the parlous state of politics, boomed to such an extent that ideas voiced at the Liberation of sport as service public seemed startlingly anachronistic.
For all its popularity, professional cycling in the late 1940s and 1950s underwent a number of changes to its economic organization: riders increasingly demanded better wages and conditions of employment and the declining vitality of the domestic bicycle industry led cycle teams and organizers of races to consider sponsorship from outside the world of cycling. Traditional organizers of competitions such as newspapers welcomed investment in the sport from businesses that hitherto would have left cycle sport to be sponsored by bike and component manufacturers, and even L'Equipe–Parisien libéré and the Tour – Goddet nurtured a complex mix of commercialism and sporting mystique in the Tour – were happy to develop a publicity caravan from 1947, increasing subsidies from villes-étape and other forms of sponsorship. The essential problem for the Tour, as Goddet had recreated it in 1947 in an attempt to protect its ‘symbolic’ importance to France, was that the teams were national rather than corporate, thereby separating the sporting and financial logics of the event. Hence, even though riders were employed by teams sponsored by cycle-industry companies and, latterly, extra-sportif partners such as Nivea or BP, Jacques Anquetil, say, would ride the Tour simply as a Frenchman (though in the Giro d'Italia, for example, he would represent his corporate sponsor). The corporate team system was eventually reintroduced in 1962, as the Tour had been weakened in the late 1950s and early 1960s by the absence of champions such as Van Looy, Anquetil and Poulidor, who chose not to participate in favour of other competitions of more importance to the extra-sportif sponsors of their teams. Champions had been stars in previous decades, but it was only really in the 1950s that riders began to gain some real influence over (p.143) their conditions of employment as their importance to extra-sportif sponsors began to counterbalance the controlling influence of the Tour management. The creation of the Union des cyclistes professionnels français in 1957 with the French champion Louison Bobet as its head reflected the modernization of the sport, itself a reflection of the rapidly changing society of France in the late Fourth Republic.
Cycling champions of the ‘New France’: Vietto, Robic, Bobet
French society by the middle of the 1950s was beginning to move forwards again after the destructions and disruptions of war and occupation. In 1947 the first post-war Tour was won by the French rider Jean Robic, who gained a somewhat unexpected victory through a surprise – and rather irregular, in terms of the riders' code – attack on the final day's stage. Robic's win at the expense of the Italian rider Pierre Brambilla was greeted with relief by the public that the pre-war run of wins by Belgians and Italians had been broken (even if through the use of a slightly questionable tactic).7 Given the enormous difficulties experienced by France in the immediate post-war years – economic reconstruction and the refounding of normal politics in the form of the Fourth Republic established only in late 1946 – Robic's snatched victory can be interpreted as another iteration of what was later called the ‘Astérix complex’, in which the combative French rider (in this case, very appropriately, a Breton) employs a ruse to undo the technical superiority of the Italian (who had taken the yellow jersey after the ‘technical’ stage of an individual time trial). Robic continued to participate in the Tour throughout the Fourth Republic, retiring eventually in 1959, but never repeated his success.
As the Tour restarted, 1947 in particular had been a year of great social, political and economic unrest, and although by the mid-1950s politics and the economy had reached a new equilibrium, French society overall was still both coming to terms with the aftermath of occupation and collaboration and, increasingly, being challenged by the socioeconomic modernization demanded by the post-war world. In politics, international relations, economics and sport/culture, the French were looking for signs that France could be successful again, and could put behind it the perceived causes of its shameful collapse in 1940 (technological backwardness, social divisions and political incompetence). Hence, sporting victories were welcomed with great appreciation, and the run of wins by Louison Bobet in 1953, 1954 and 1955 seemed to (p.144) demonstrate a return to the good times through a renewal of France's national sport.
René Vietto: nostalgia for the ‘Old France’ in 1947?
The French rider René Vietto (1914–88) had been a favourite star for the home audience during pre-war Tours (his selflessness in favour of his team leader, Antonin Magne, in 1934 had become part of Tour and national sporting folklore). In 1938 and 1939 he came close to winning the Tour himself, wearing the yellow jersey for many stages, but ultimately losing his overall leadership. Vietto's participation in the 1947 Tour marked both the continuity of the competition – in a sense starting again as it had left off – and also a kind of nostalgia for the pre-war years of innocence. Despite holding the lead for 14 stages during the 1947 race (his record was 15 in 1938), Vietto eventually finished fifth and never took part in the Tour again. Although Vietto was only 34 in 1947, and continued racing until the late 1940s, the symbolism of his failure to progress beyond his pre-war achievements in the Tour was clear enough; while his popularity had endured among a nostalgic cycling audience, they and France in general were waiting for new champions representative of France's renewal and rebirth after the Occupation (during which Vietto had, incidentally, continued to compete). Jacques Lecarme has suggested that Vietto can be considered as an emblematic hero of the Popular Front, and reminds us that, in 1947, he was the subject of a eulogistic article by the communist Miroir-Sprint magazine, extolling his (left-wing) virtues (Lecarme, 1998: 150). The younger French winner Jean Robic defined himself in contradistinction to Vietto's easy-going good nature and the inter-war failures characteristic of ‘la France de l'apéro’ with aggressive tactics and ambition (Robic got married just before the Tour and famously promised his bride that, although he had no money for her, she would soon have his rewards as winner of the Tour de France).
Jean Robic: the Astérix complex – resourceful France
During the course of his long professional career, Jean Robic (1921–80) sustained eleven major injuries, including a fractured skull in 1944 and a broken femur in 1956.8 According to the former champion and then team manager, Antonin Magne, he was ‘the prototype of the kind of rider who never admits defeat’; Magne elaborated: ‘It isn't weight or size that determines the worth of an athlete, but valour and class’ (Le Boterf, 1981: 16). At 1.61 m and weighing only 60 kg, with an unprepossessing appearance and demeanour, Robic apparently deserved his nickname in the (p.145) peloton of ‘(Ro)biquet’ (‘the Goat’). But in many ways he was a real popular hero of the late 1940s and 1950s, whose origins, style and image contrasted with those of the two French champions – René Vietto and Louison Bobet – against whom he defined his career. The crowds who lined the roads of France to shout ‘Robic-où-qu'il-est’ (‘Robic, where is he?’) when he won the first post-war Tour in 1947 saw something of their sufferings during the Occupation in his determination to keep fighting, and preferred to call him ‘Robic Cæur de Lion’ and ‘Jean de Gaule’ rather than ‘the Goat’.
The whole of Robic's career and life appears to have been overshadowed by a persecution complex from which he drew motivation to compete. For Robic, the slights and unfairness against which he had to fight were all too real; as he claimed ‘Je ne suis pas un tourmenté. Je dis seulement la vérité’, and it seems that on many occasions when he complained about preferential treatment accorded to other racers, he was right (Le Boterf, 1981: 2). But his provincial outlook on modern life and hypersensitivity to criticism or opposition also reflected the troubled times of the mid-and late 1940s, and France's difficult transition from the Third Republic and Vichy to the optimism of the Fourth Republic. During Monaco–Paris – the race staged in the absence of the Tour in 1946, and known as ‘le petit Tour de France’ – Robic's anger at favours accorded to René Vietto were expressed in terms that seem to crystallize the forced pragmatism of the new France (‘making-do’ and ‘getting-by’), compared with the self-indulgent style of ‘la France de l'apéro’ of the 1930s, represented by ‘le Roi Réné’, who won the race: ‘It should have been me in the Yellow Jersey, but Robic wasn't good enough or pretty enough to be the winner.’ Robic's Breton and proletarian roots, and the work ethic that accompanied them, were in a complicated relation with the imperatives of professional racing in the immediate post-war period and with the modernizing society of the new Republic.
Robic was proud of his Breton roots in the village of Radenac (Morbihan) and of his trade there as a carpenter:
C'est là où je me sens chez moi, où j'ai travaillé. C'est le seul endroit sur la terre où les gens qui m'entourent me connaissent bien et m'apprécient. Làbas je suis devenu un ouvrier de renommée dans ma profession, et même de renommée départementale, et je crois que c'est une des choses dont je reste le plus fier. Aujourd'hui encore, quand je vais à la Bottine, je suis content de voir circuler des brouettes, des charrettes, et de me dire que c'est moi qui les ai fabriquées il y a de nombreuses années, et qu'elles sont toujours aptes à servir. (Ollivier, 1992a: 20)9
Such pride in one's work and in the honesty of work done properly was at odds with many of the arrangements required in racing, especially (p.146) during a period when an old and popular champion such as Vietto was attempting to mark the renewal of the Tour at the same time as younger riders such as Robic and his later rival Bobet. Robic's thirst for victory clashed with the desire of organizers and the public to see Vietto claim his rightful place in a celebration of France's return to normality, but his energy and desire to win through against all obstacles also touched a chord with a population suffering rationing and reconstruction. The Tour of 1947 was the only victory for Robic in ‘la grande Boucle’, as he defeated Vietto and the Italian rider Brambilla. His disrespect for the etiquette of riding led him to declare that during the arduous stage from Luchon to Pau ‘je pars dès le début, et j'arrive seul…’ (Ollivier, 1992a: 46). During the last stage he contemptuously accepted the deal proposed by a rider in the French national team to help him win yellow, arguing that the offer was made by someone who accepted his own defeat and that of his team leader, Vietto, and that the 100,000 francs requested could soon be recouped in after-Tour engagements (Ollivier, 1992a: 47).
Robic's hopes of winning the Tour again were reduced by the victorious return of Gino Bartali in 1948, and then by the rise of Fausto Coppi, who won in 1949 and 1952. The Swiss victories for Ferdi Kubler in 1950 and Hugo Koblet in 1951 completed the foreign domination of the Tour between Robic's win in 1947 and Bobet's trio of victories in 1953–55. Robic claimed that on several occasions during the 1950s when they were team-mates in the French national squad, he suggested to Bobet that they ride tactically together to block the foreign champions, but he found Bobet ‘too egotistical’ to agree (Le Boterf, 1981: 103). Vietto and Bartali were ghosts from the past, as champions of the 1930s, but Coppi and Bobet were racers whose approach to competition took the sport forwards into a more technical future. Robic is an appropriate link between the two periods. Compared with the scientific training of Coppi and the media-friendliness of Bobet, the Goat's recourse to faith healers during the 1950s and his natural irascibility, distrust of journalists and of race organizers seemed an example of France's introspection and stagnation during the war, rather than of the spirit of rebirth and modernity of the brave new 1950s. Cycling journalist and historian Pierre Chany has suggested that Robic's role – willingly adopted – in the Tour de France during the 1950s was that of the evil counterpart of Louison Bobet, and that it was the desire of press and public to see such a manichean rivalry that led him, as a good professional, to fulfil their expectations (Ollivier, 1992a: 193). Certainly, Robic had a highly developed sense of his responsibilities as a professional rider, declaring on his retirement: ‘Moi, je ne peux oublier ce que je dois malgré tout au cyclisme. (p.147) Il a fait de moi un homme public, à défaut d'un homme riche, et un homme public se doit de faire face à ses responsabilités, même si son entourage se lasse de la méchanceté de ses détracteurs’ (Ollivier, 1992a: 190).
Louison Bobet: rebuilding French confidence
Louison Bobet's wins in 1953, 1954 and 1955 gave the French public a burst of pride during years when – as normal politics regained previous patterns of Left–Right strife and France's colonial problems in Indochina and Algeria came to head government agendas – concern grew over the long-term viability of the youthful Fourth Republic. Bobet's six preparatory participations in the Tour since 1947 seemed to reflect France's period of post-war reconstruction and reorganization, and by winning the 50th anniversary Tour in 1953 and those of the following two years, Bobet seemed to lay claim again to the Tour as France's national competition, just as riders such as Garin, Cornet, Trousselier and others had done in its initial foundins period from 1903 until 1909.
Bobet's Tours – as a reflection of their period – introduced innovations and changes: in 1953 Goddet inaugurated the sprint competition (the points jersey was green because it was sponsored by a French garden equipment company); in 1954 the Tour's first stage departed from Amsterdam (the first foreign start); in 1955 German riders participated for the first time since 1939. Although Bobet was a popular champion, giving the French pride in France at a time when the loss of Indochina (1954) and the rise of unrest in Algeria undermined confidence in politics and divided society, his domination of competition led some to hope for the appearance of challengers (even foreign) who would make the Tours less predictable. Thus Charly Gaul, from Luxembourg, was much supported in the 1955 Tour, purely because his climbing abilities made him the only competitor able to put in doubt (to use Yonnet's principle of ‘uncertainty’) Bobet's overall control of events (Yonnet, 1998). But a treble of victories for France – even at the expense of Tours that were boring for the general public – was sufficient in terms of popular identification with national success to make Bobet a national hero. In 1954 Bobet won both the Tour and the world championships, giving France both a yellow and a rainbow jersey.
Bobet won his Tours as a rider of the French national team so his status as a national champion, rather than simply a winner who happened to be French though riding for a foreign team, is even more to be emphasized. Bobet's image and significance as an icon of cycling was defined both in opposition to the foreign champions he raced – the (p.148) Italians Coppi and Bartali, the Swiss Koblet, and the Luxemburger Gaul – and by his relationships with the main French contenders of his era. These relations were by no means always cordial, and centred essentially around rivalry between Bobet and the champions of the late 1940s (the ageing Vietto and the touchy Robic) and later the youthful Jacques Anquetil, whose record in the Tour in the late 1950s and 1960s surpassed even that of Bobet. In 1947 and 1948, for example, the young Bobet did well in his first two Tours but struggled to be accepted by Vietto (who had twice nearly won the Tour before the war) and Robic (also a Breton but who criticized Bobet as ‘un Breton de l'extérieur’, unfaithful to his roots). Tension in the national team in 1948 was such that the influential journalist Jean Leuliot of Miroir-Sprint complained that the French team was made up of a rag-bag of stars all more egotistical and selfcentred than each other, the pity being that the team's strength was actually a weakness, since everyone felt they could win individually (Ollivier, 1992b: 56). Bobet's strong showing in 1948 was sabotaged by inadequate support from team-mates and then by ill health; in 1949 Robic was ruled out of the national team because of his unwillingness to work with the rising young star, leaving Vietto to represent the older guard; and feuding surfaced again between Robic and Bobet in 1950. The status of ‘national’ champions for France was also complicated by the existence of regional teams, in which other French riders – not selected for the national team but frequently strong competitors – also raced in the Tour. The Tour of 1953, eventually to be the first of Bobet's victories, in which Robic competed as a member of the West regional team, provided a clear example of this as the West squad tried to sabotage Bobet's duel with Bartali (Augendre, 1997: 21–22). Team orders that year gave no special priority to Bobet, but when it transpired that Bobet and team-mate Geminiani were both well placed for victory, Bobet claimed the support of the team for his efforts by promising all his race winnings to them. Bobet's image in the pantheon of French cycling stars is almost always positive: the criticisms that were occasionally made of him were outweighed by the cycling public's appreciation of his style and racing behaviour, and the general public in France was delighted that confidence in post-war recovery could be bolstered by national sporting success in the Tour. In comparison with later French champions, Bobet's career was played out in an arguably simpler sporting and media context.
In conclusion to this section on the French heroes of the post-war Tour de France, it is worth quoting in full the view expressed by Louis Aragon in the communist evening paper Ce Soir, as the 1947 Tour de France was about to start. Aragon's interpretation of what the Tour (p.149) meant to France as it was run again for the first time in seven years reveals quite how much the Tour and its riders were significant in French representations of identity and community. In a piece tellingly entitled ‘L'Energie nationale, 1947’, he wrote:
Le Tour, c'est la fête d'un été d'hommes, c'est aussi la fête de tout notre pays, d'une passion singulièrement francaise: tant pis pour ceux qui ne savent pas en partager les émotions, les folies, les espoirs. Je n'ai pas perdu cet espoir de mon enfance pour le grand rite tous les ans renouvelé. Mais j'ai appris à y voir, à y lire autre chose; autre chose qui est écrit dans les yeux anxieux des coureurs, dans l'effort de leurs muscles, dans la sueur et la douleur volontaire des coureurs. La leçon de l'énergie nationale, le goût violent de vaincre la nature et son propre corps, l'exaltation de tous pour les meilleurs… La leçon tous les ans renouvelée, et qui manifeste que la France est vivante, et que le Tour est bien le Tour de France. (Aragon, 1947)
Next, however, we look at how cycling in popular culture was betraying signs of the pressures it was facing because of France's ongoing modernization and rising prosperity.
Cycling in difficulty: obsolescence, compromise, resistance?
During the late 1940s and the 1950s cycle sport was able to recommence its highly popular activities at all levels of competition within France and, of course, to showcase France's recovery and modernity through a reinvigorated Tour de France in which French champions vied against ‘Other’ emblematic icons of sporting prowess in struggles that reflected France's rebirth after the difficulties of the war and the shame of Vichy. The Tour itself, as well as allowing the French population to identify positively with new heroes such as Robic, Bobet and later Jacques Anquetil, was constantly innovating by inventing new twists to the race or the route, or encouraging new technologies and practices of reporting. The Tour during these decades was relentlessly innovative. Thus, in 1947, the Tour visited its first foreign capital, in an excursion to Brussels; in 1948 the finish was broadcast by live television for the first time; in 1951 Mont Ventoux was included in the route for the first time; in 1952 the first stage to end at altitude was run; in 1953, to mark the 50th anniversary, the green jersey points competition was introduced and an extra-sportif sponsor (Nivea) became involved for the first time; in 1955 television introduced a daily highlights programme; and in 1957 riders' jerseys carried commercial advertising for the first time.10
In contrast to the vibrancy, innovation and modernity of cycle sport during the Fourth Republic, what might be termed everyday cycling (p.150) suffered during the 1940s and 1950s from the very modernity that was helping reinscribe the Tour de France as a traditional yet contemporary heroic saga of sporting endurance. In terms of utility cycling and general leisure cycling, the traditional use of bicycles for transport and the acceptance of any need for endurance were rapidly being rendered outdated by rising prosperity and the availability of new forms of transport such as the moped and the car. In the conceptual framework suggested by the sociologist and historian of cycling Philippe Gaboriau, the 1940s and 1950s represent the middle of the ‘second age’ of cycling in France, that of la vitesse populaire, which spanned the period from 1900 until the early 1970s (Gaboriau, 1991: 21).
Obsolescent cycling in popular culture: Jour de Fête
One of the most famous works of the celebrated film director Jacques Tati is the 1949 masterpiece of comedy and sociocultural observation and satire, Jour de Fête. One of the principal roles in the film is played by a bicycle, used as the transport of the struggling local postman who is the hero of unfolding events. A recurrent theme in the work of Jacques Tati (1907–82) was technology, and his concern that western societies were too reliant on technological fixes to solve real or merely apparent problems. In Jour de Fête, this consistent leitimotif of Tati's cinema intersects neatly with France's anxieties over its technological, social and cultural modernization in the post-war period, and the bicycle is the symbol both of France's feared backwardness and of its feverish attempts to keep pace with American models of behaviour and technical innovations. Kristin Ross, in her discussion of French culture and society in the 1950s, summarizes Tati's work as dealing essentially with the ‘Americanization’ of everyday life (Ross, 1995: 42).
Set in the classically rural village of Sainte-Sévère-sur-Indre and its bucolic environs, Jour de Fête presents an inefficiently inept and too readily distracted local facteur, who is generally more keen on chatting with the recipients of the mail than actually delivering it on time and accurately. As an employee of La Poste, the long-standing French national public postal service, this figure of the lazy and ineffectual postman is a clear metaphor for perceived waste and inefficiency in French business and administration during the 1940s and 1950s, as the state and the private sector attempted to foster production, productivity and efficiency gains in a drive towards growth and modernization. Tati's choice to locate the action in the countryside rather than in France's rapidly developing urban industrial centres – the film was shot in 1947 – emphasizes even more strongly the contrast between American modernity (p.151) and a France of manual labour whose emblematic technology in the film consists of a bicycle, old tractors or the rocking-horse merry-goround of a traditional travelling fair. David Bellos, in a discussion of how the funding and making of Jour de Fête reflect the complicated cultural and commercial relationship between French and US cinema during this period, describes the work as a ‘nostalgic comedy of la France profonde’ and, in effect, ‘a relatively heavy-handed reassertion of French and rural values’ (Bellos, 1999: 145, 158).
Having drunk too much during a celebration in the town – significantly, the jour de fête concerned seems to be Bastille Day, France's national holiday – and mistakenly and unduly influenced by his viewing during the party of a newsreel film praising the US Postal Service's use of aeroplanes, helicopters and Harley-Davidsons in order to expedite mail deliveries in reflection of the American slogan ‘Time is Money!’, the postman François makes strenuous efforts to improve his performance. Doing his round ‘American-style’ because ‘“Impossible” n'est pas français’ involves him taking lessons in speed-cycling, franking letters while his bicycle is hitched to the tailgate of a speeding lorry and a variety of other time-saving stunts in which the bicycle and French traditions are equated, and – implicitly – compared negatively with American practices and attitudes in terms of efficiency. François even becomes involved in a bicycle race, overtaking the peloton and then being paced, derny-style, by a villager on a mobylette. But, on a deeper level, the film shows sympathy for French traditions of living, because even though the post is delivered more quickly, human contact and sociability are lost. After a crash, François and the bicycle are brought home on a horse and cart. As they pass a field where the harvest is similarly being brought home, he declares ‘Me voilà arrivé’, and joins in the work. When a villager asks him,‘C'est fini, ta tournée américaine?’, with a resigned but dismissive ‘bof’ he renounces his ambition to ‘faire vite, comme les Américains’; and as the fair whose newsreel had started the whole adventure leaves town, a small boy – the next generation – takes up François' bécane (an oldfashioned slang term for bike) to deliver the mail in the time-honoured tradition.
As Bellos demonstrates (1999: 157) in his discussion of differences between Tati's different versions of the film, Jour de Fête is in essence less an ‘anti-American’ film than a film which is ‘pro-French’. And throughout this durably iconic artifact of popular culture and its assertion of ‘French values’, we find a constant association between tradition and the bicycle, while all around in politics, economics and society, France was modernizing rapidly.
The opening sequences of Jacques Tati's later film Monsieur Hulot (1958) show the eponymous hero travelling by Vélo-Solex, and it is this vehicle that marks his avuncular progress through the film and the streets of Paris: a mere decade after Jour de Fête, the bicycle as nostalgic cipher for the everyday routine of French life and transport had thus been displaced by a motorized cycle. The Vélo-Solex powered bicycle, first marketed in France in 1946, was a French-designed and French-produced personal transport icon of the post-war period until the advent of truly affordable cars for the masses in the 1960s weakened its financial attractiveness to all those needing inexpensive, short-range, lightweight but load-carrying individual mobility. Described as a cyclomoteur and powered by either a 45cc or more latterly (from 1953) a 49cc engine mounted above the front wheel and driving it directly, the Vélo-Solex was – because of its similarity to classic cycles and by virtue of its small engine-size – exempt from licensing and road tax. Although the Vélo-Solex has yet to be the subject of an exhaustive academic history, the factual discussion that follows here is based on a small number of enthusiast and commemorative studies (Méneret and Méneret, 2004; 2006; Goyard and Méneret, 2002; Salvat, Pascal and Goyard, 1989).
Designed by Maurice Goudard and Marcel Menesson (who trained in engineering at the Ecole des Mines, Paris) in 1941 (although they had been considering the concept since as early as 1916) and developed during the early and mid-1940s until it came into production after the war, the Vélo-Solex constituted an important link in terms of everyday personal mobility between the bicycle as work or leisure transport for the masses – Gaboriau's ‘second age’ of cycling, or la vitesse des pauvres – and mass car ownership. In an age of post-war austerity as the French economy recovered from the destruction and distortions to industry wrought by occupation and conflict, a simple-to-manufacture powered bicycle designed to use a minimum of parts and materials filled an obvious market niche. Attractively priced – consistently during the 1940s and 1950s – at around twice the cost of a normal bicycle, the Vélo-Solex was the two-wheeled urban/rural equivalent of the other transport solution for post-war France, the Citroën 2CV, first marketed in late 1948.
Initial models used already available frames from the well-known Alcyon brand of bicycles, to which were added the motor, normal pedaloperated drive train (the cyclomoteur could be pedalled as well as operating under its own power), comfortable saddle, racks and other attachments for luggage or panniers and the usual cycle components. Original versions featured an elegant swan's-neck frame allowing an easy (p.153) step-through action to mount the bicycle, facilitating their use by women wearing dresses or priests wearing the cassock, and later versions retained this ‘uni-sex’ feature, although slightly strengthened and flattened frames became standard. Power output from the two-stroke engine varied between a basic 0.4 bhp and a maximum for later versions of 0.8 bhp, and the maximum speed was limited to 20 kph. In 1958–59 the vehicle's operation was upgraded with the addition of a clutch to help manage the input of the engine to driving the bicycle, and from the late 1950s until the end of production in 1988 the final design model – the Vélo-Solex 1010 – sold over a million units. Overall, between 1946 and 1988, the original French-produced Vélo-Solex sold some 8 million units before production and ownership of the brand moved abroad.
In June 2010 the Vélo-Solex was honoured by being the subject of a documentary by the serious Franco-German television channel Arte in a ten-programme series on design classics (Guétari, 2010).11 Taking its place alongside other 1950s products such as the Fiat Nuova 500 car (1957), the Bic Cristal ballpoint pen (1950) and the Lego brick (1959) as a cult-object defining its time, the French cyclomoteur was celebrated for its intrinsic simplicity of design and for its cultural role in society in its hey-day decades of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. In reference to the writer Jacques Steenberg, whose autobiography included an impassioned chapter praising the Vélo-Solex (Steenberg, 1977), the Arte documentary also evoked the ways in which the experience of the Solex (as it was most usually called) was invariably described by its users through terms invoking freedom, absence of constraint and independence, as well as straightforward practicality (as had been the case for the bicycle in earlier times). Even when the Vélo-Solex was used ostensibly merely as a means of transport for utility or work-related purposes – the documentary suggests that in the 1940s it was used principally by priests, in the 1950s mainly by travelling salesmen and in the 1960s by students – it always represented ‘freedom’, and as its use, in preference to a car, became increasingly a lifestyle choice, the social and cultural meaning of the vélomoteur was transformed. Writing in 1977, at a time when in terms of utility transport the Vélo-Solex was already becoming something of an anachronistic curiosity, Jacques Steenberg praised its ability to lose time, in a piece that it is worth quoting in full:
De même que la Mobylette est le véhicule du garçon livreur ou du prolo pressé de bouffer du kilomètre pour aller pointer, le Solex est celui du calme raté, un peu employé, un peu représentant indolent de lui-même, un peu flâneur, voyeur rêvasseur, qui est très évidemment en marge de son époque, de cette époque de sprints furieux, de virages pris à la corde, de folie routière, d'ambition forcenée et de rage d'arriver à plus de 200 km à l'heure au (p.154) tombeau. […] Et, comme j'aurais pu le prévoir, mon Solex m'aura surtout servi, non pas à gagner du temps, mais à en perdre avec infiniment de douceur. Pour goûter cette douceur, il faut évidemment remplir certaines conditions: avoir en soi un inaltérable mépris de la vitesse et du record, savoir comment remettre à plus tard n'importe quel rendez-vous, préférer le vent aux courants d'air et le soleil à la chaleur des radiateurs, n'entretenir qu'un minimum d'ambition sociale, posséder au plus haut point l'art de faire passer le plaisir avant l'efficience et aussi celui de pouvoir à n'importe quel moment remettre les choses au lendemain. Il faut également entretenir une inépuisable soif de liberté, être toujours à la disposition, non pas d'un patron ou d'une femme, mais de cette liberté. (Steenberg, 1977: 58–59)
The Vélo-Solex, although powered by an engine as well as pedals, was more a bicycle than anything else, and in the 2000s, as electric-powered bicycles became increasingly popular, the freedom of two wheels was still available to those who preferred it, just as in the Fourth Republic the Vélo-Solex complemented the traditional bicycle.
Innovation/resistance: the Vélo-cross club de Paris
Although everyday cycling in terms of utility, commuting and general leisure practices was under threat during the 1950s, leading to a crisis in the 1960s, there were occasional instances of resistance to the trends that were increasingly dividing cycling into either an elite, highly commercialized and mediatized sport emblematic of France's modernization and modernity, or a banal, backwards-looking, archaically traditional throwback to previous modes of personal transport and leisure. One such example of innovation during the 1950s was the development by a group of young cyclists from the outskirts of Paris of a form of leisure cycling that essentially anticipated the ‘Californian’ mountain-biking revolution in cycling in the 1970s (VTT Magazine, 1998; 1999). This small-scale, localized, home-grown and home-made modification of technologies and cycling practices produced a form of recreational/competitive cycling called le vélo-cross, which should be seen as a significant French precursor to what became, in the 1980s, a veritable craze for mountainbiking (le VTT) imported from the US that relaunched cycling in France. Indeed, as a new form of cycling practised essentially in urban and suburban space, le vélo-cross was in many ways as much a precursor of BMX riding – which similarly contributed to redynamizing cycling in France in the 1980s – as mountain-biking.12 In a later chapter we will consider the VTT phenomenon, but here we concentrate on the littleknown activities of the Vélo-cross club de Paris.
Le vélo-cross requires competitors to cover the course by riding (p.155) alone, in contradistinction to the well-established if rather specialized form of cycle racing termed cyclo-cross, in which competitors race on a circuit or course comprising both sections of riding and of running while carrying the bike. The vélo-cross courses have steep slopes to try to force riders into difficulties on the ascent, involve non-asphalted surfaces, significant volumes of mud and often require acrobatic bike-handling. As well as being interested in traditional cyclo-cross categories of cycle sport, adolescents in the urban periphery of Paris during the early 1950s were also much taken with moto-cross, whose meetings on abandoned areas of ground around the old city fortifications attracted significant crowds of spectators, keen to enjoy the excitement of motorized sport at low cost in the straitened circumstances of the time. The activity of vélocross was soon envisioned, in which racers were obliged to remain on their bikes. Some versions of the history of mountain-biking attribute the invention of the concept to Jean-Louis Swiners (b. 1935) of Saint-Mandé in Paris, who in 1948 first started to use an adapted pre-war bicycle to do ‘rough-stuff’ (in other words, vélo-cross cycling) in the more rugged and sloping areas of the Bois de Vincennes. In partnership with Pierre Gady and Jack Berthier, Swiners popularized the term vélo-cross and founded the (unrecognized by the sports federations) Association sportive du vélo tout-terrain (ASVTT).13
At more or less the same period as Swiners was promoting his activities in the Bois de Vincennes and the Buttes at Morel, more to the north of Paris in Les Lilas a group of some twenty youngsters led by Jean Duda created an official ‘association’ named the Vélo-cross club de Paris (VCCP) as a structure within which they could develop their interest in creating hybridized bicycles that incorporated motorcycle suspension elements but remained unpowered, allowing their riders to use similar courses and terrains to the moto-cross riders, and emphasizing the technical difficulty of the slopes, turns, jumps and landings. This popular-cultural technological, sporting and social bricolage (or DIY adaptation) reasserted the appeal of unpowered cycling in the face of moto-cross and affirmed the pleasures and excitement of an essentially amateur, ‘fun’ form of physical expression using an item of technology – the bicycle – that was otherwise being superseded in its attractiveness by motorcycles and cars. The impecunious youngsters collaborating with Jean Duda were cyclists, but also aspiring motorcycle owners, and the hybrid of moto-cross and cyclo-cross that they invented was a true ‘everyday’ development of leisure/sporting practices and materials/technologies/equipment.
In reflection perhaps of the ways in which the bicycle and motorcycle (p.156) manufacturers were addressing the issue of the declining popularity of the bicycle for commuting by creating the hybrid bicycle/motorcycle exemplified by the Vélo-Solex, the VCCP's technical bricolage/ cannibalism of available materials was similarly constructing new forms of bicycle that married the technological aspects of motorcycles that allowed control at speed with the classic simplicity and human power source. Duda and his fellow enthusiasts salvaged suspension front forks, handlebar-mounted gearchanges, drum brakes and other components from the small 100cc motorcycles that were readily available in scrap yards, producing radically ‘modern’ designs of bicycle that were later taken up by mass production for specialist VTT/mountain-biking in the 1970s and 1980s and, in the 2000s, featured strongly in the majority of non road-racing bicycle designs.
The popularity of the entertaining antics of the VCCP during the intermissions between moto-cross races – they would ride the course, showing off with wheelies, bunny-hops and other acrobatic antics – provoked some resentful animosity from the motorcycling fraternity, and in a pattern not unfamiliar in French sport, the sports federations of both motorcycling and cycling were discouraging of the innovative hybrid. Preferring to concentrate solely on motorized competition (sport mécanique), the motorcycling authorities rejected the VCCP's overtures for help in developing the sport, and the Fédération française de cyclisme imposed such stringent conditions for affiliation (compulsory insurance, helmets, licences and so on) that the fledgling new form of cycling was disheartened.
Although many of the technical innovations introduced by the VCCP in the 1950s had at one stage or another in the rich history of cycling technology also been invented by manufacturers or impassioned amateurs, the experiences of this group of adolescent cycling enthusiasts, driven to ‘modernize’ their sport in a period when its popularity was waning, seem a significant act of localized, everyday, grassroots resistance, both to the declining popularity of cycling in general, and to the dominance of road racing as the pre-eminent form of cycle sport. Whereas the bicycle of the postman in Jour de Fête had been an old-fash-ioned throwback to the 1890s, the VCCP's machines anticipated the vogues in MTB design of the late 1970s and 1980s, and were exciting enough to deflect the attention of some young people at least from the more sedate comfort of the siren vélomoteurs. (p.157) Cycling during the 1940s and 1950s accompanied and reflected both the modernization and development of French society and the French economy, but it also, in terms of politics and public policies in favour of sport and leisure, underwent and resisted the institutional modifications wrought by both the Vichy regime and the French state in the Fourth Republic. As we have seen, the Tour de France remained core to the experience and meaning of cycling during this period, providing a metaphor and iconic heroes for French citizens to imagine their community by. In the continuing history of the bicycle as both harbinger of speed, modernity and change, and also as an emblem of past ways of doing things, the 1940s and 1950s saw a particularly clear example of the Janus-like symbolism of cycling, as French culture and society began to change at a faster pace than ever. What is clear, however, in the cultural and social history of cycling in France during these momentous decades is the enduring centrality of the varied activities of cycling to the lived experience of most people. On a range of levels of experience, varying from the entirely everyday need for personal utility transport (the Vélo-Solex), through the intermediate levels of occasional leisure cycling and sociability (nascent new forms of leisure/competition riding exemplified by the VCCP) to what might be termed the higher levels of imagined national identity represented by the Tour (France in a race with the rest of the world) and Jour de Fête (France in a dialogue with its past), cycling was a prime instrument of conceiving French identities.
(2) Although avowedly apolitical, L'Auto had from its inception been politically marked by its association with the sports–industrial complex and the Right.
(4) The new paper continued the avowed ambition of L'Auto not to become involved, at least directly, in politics,
(5) The Fédération française de cyclisme decreed in 1946 that races should be restricted to only five stages, because of the shortages of equipment and food rationing.
(6) The pejorative phrase ‘la France de l'apéro’ is variously attributed, but the extreme right-wing writer Pierre Drieu de la Rochelle is a likely candidate.
(7) The Italian Brambilla was racing for a team of Italians living and racing in France, and memories of the war were sufficiently alive to have made his victory rather unpopular with both French riders and the general public alike.
(8) He turned professional in 1943, and first competed as a pro in the 1944 season. He rode his final Tour in 1959, competing in ten Tours overall.
(9) Robic's father was also a carpenter and a successful part-time racing cyclist, (p.158) later owning a cycling shop. Robic was good at school but left to take up an apprenticeship. When asked after his retirement what his greatest achievement in cycling had been he dismissed victory in the Tour in 1947 and his other successes and described his pride in having single-handedly repaired the gearbox of his car at the roadside, at night, on his way to the start of a national championships: a lot of riders could ride, but few were as good mechanics as he.
(11) Documentary by Hélène Guétari, Le Solex, véhicule de la liberté, first broadcast 13 June 2010. See http://drsolex.over-blog.com/article-video-arte-design-levelosolex-juin-2010-59071371.html (accessed 18 August 2011).
(12) BMX riding – for leisure or for sport – has developed from somewhat uncertain beginnings in France in the late 1970s and early 1980s to become an accepted strand of the forms of cycling recognized by the Fédération française de cyclisme. The activity is generally analysed as a form of ‘ludo-sportif’ appropriation of urban/suburban space; see, for example, Escaffrel (2005). Although there is no space here to discuss BMX in France, a study of it by the author is underway.
(13) See http://www.intelligence-creative.com/541_invention_vtt_jls.html (accessed 17 August 2011).