CONTROVERSY HAS CONTINUED TO surround Anquetil in death as in life. After being allowed a few years to develop in the French national consciousness into a lamented wise old man of cycling, the publication in 2004 of his daughter’s recollections of her childhood and the unique family relationships involved thrust the more contentious aspects of his life back onto the front pages. And not just the front pages. Sophie’s book appeared briefly in the best-seller charts, while she and her two mothers – Annie and Jeanine – went on national television to discuss their life with Anquetil. Dozens of articles appeared in both the tabloid and broadsheet newspapers, while Internet chat rooms buzzed with comment.

Although Sophie was sometimes lauded for her honesty, not all of it flattered her or her father. While the more considered comments in the mainstream press hid any disapproval behind discussions of the complexities of Anquetil’s character and the apparent consent of all those involved (or whether or not such consent could really exist), the less regulated world of the Internet saw passions soar. Some commentators criticised Anquetil for his ‘immoral’ behaviour; many more pointed the finger at Sophie for apparently seeking to make money out of her story or for tarnishing her father’s reputation.

I asked Sophie how she felt at the sometimes very personal vitriol she had encountered as a result of writing her book: ‘There was one thing that I hadn’t at all imagined, and that was that when the book came out there was a whole host of other confessional books that came out at the same time [biographies of the controversial family lives of popular French actor Yves Montand and philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, for example]. In those, there are stories that are nice and not so nice, difficult to accept and not so difficult to accept, and this coincidence meant that for those who hadn’t read my book this media storm implied a pejorative side to it that just doesn’t exist in the book itself. That’s to say, all those who’ve bothered to read it realise that I’ve not at all tarnished the image of my father. On the contrary, it gives him a new dimension. It helps people understand things about him – his life, his reserve, his desire to protect himself, not liking being a public figure, wanting to protect his clan, his private life. It perhaps helped them understand him a bit more, but those who didn’t read the book and just read the press got stuck on the bit about how he had a child with the child of his wife. They don’t understand his motivations – why or how he got there. And that’s why I think it had to be somebody from inside, who lived it, who had to tell the story. Who else can truly understand his motivations if they weren’t involved? You can only come at it from outside with judgement, and I didn’t want to judge what he did. I just wanted to explain why it happened as it did.’

Yet it shouldn’t really have come as a surprise that such revelations would inspire a media frenzy. Even in France, where individual privacy is respected far more than it is in the UK – article nine of the Code civil enshrines this right to privacy in French law – a sex scandal or an illegitimate child can still make the headlines. It may not have been until after the death of former president François Mitterrand that the papers felt comfortable discussing his numerous affairs and a hitherto secret daughter, but discuss them they did (even if the most widespread reaction was a Gallic shrug accompanied by the slightly unbelieving and rhetorical question ‘only one secret daughter?’).

Of course, there are very few stories that can compare to Anquetil’s, but those that do have been at the centre of considerable scrutiny. Last year’s marriage between a 24-year-old Argentinian man and his 82-year-old wife made it all the way round the world. One notable aspect of the relationship, lost behind the headlines stressing their age difference, was that Reinaldo Waveqche claimed to have fallen for Adelfa Volpes after going to live with her after his mother died when he was only 15. As with Anquetil and Annie, the older partner had for some time played the role of parent.

The same is true of Woody Allen and his relationship with his erstwhile stepdaughter, now wife, Soon-Yi Previn. The extent of his role as a father figure has been widely debated. In Marion Meade’s biography of Allen – The Unruly Life of Woody Allen – Soon-Yi herself is quoted as saying, ‘He was never any kind of father figure to me. I never had any dealings with him.’ Her brother, Moses Previn, disagreed: ‘He was a 12-year boyfriend to my mom, and then he started going out with my sister. How could he do that?’

Regardless of the intricacies of Allen’s role as a parent, the criticism of his behaviour has been almost unanimous. Meade suggests that as well as legal fees running into millions of pounds and the loss of his children after a vitriolic custody battle, his audience as a film-maker has also abandoned him. ‘There are some things people never forget,’ explains one commentator. ‘I don’t think Woody’s scandal will ever go away. It has cost him his primary audience. Women in particular abandoned him. The technical definition of incest doesn’t matter so much as the fact that he meddled with the family, and you can’t do that.’

Yet although this description could also apply to Anquetil, he has, by and large, escaped such opprobrium. It is not without irony, however, that the very media activity that Pour l’amour de Jacques aroused, and the relative lack of condemnation that Sophie suggests is evidence that more people are now able to understand her father, has provoked a degree of frustration, sadness, even outright contempt from those close to Anquetil – often vented towards Sophie.

Dominique is diplomatic when I ask her about it but would clearly rather Sophie’s book had never been written: ‘When Sophie wrote her book, she called her father a sultan, and I said, “Wait a minute. Your father wasn’t a sultan. He didn’t have several wives. That’s got nothing to do with it.” So she changed the title. Yet the journalists and the papers saw sultan and picked up on it, and they had no right to do that. A lot of people took against the book, and a lot of people who were his friends took against Sophie after what she wrote, as it wasn’t entirely kind to her father. She should have respected . . . I let her do what she wanted. Perhaps she needed to do it for herself, but I think it was a lack of respect for her father to have written about his life.’

Most of the people I spoke to for this book were happy to discuss all aspects of Anquetil’s life – in some cases happy to demonstrate that their friendship transcended his obvious failings – yet were disappointed that Pour l’amour de Jacques had brought it all out into the open. A lot of people questioned her motives. She says that there were several reasons for writing the book, including a long-standing desire to write, wanting to quell rumours by having someone from the family to tell the story – but not Annie, her mother, who she says had also thought about writing a book – and because her husband encouraged her. Even Jeanine told me she wasn’t greatly enthusiastic about it: ‘My son and I didn’t like the idea very much.’ But then, with what seems to be typical resilience, she brushes all the controversy to one side: ‘Hey, when I think about all that, when I’m a bit downcast, I remind myself I didn’t waste my time in a factory all day. I just think about the good times. I had an exciting and enjoyable life, and a wonderful place to live. I got to meet de Gaulle, to meet artists. My life was made richer by all that. As for all the little domestic squabbles. Bah!’ (This classic, untranslatable French expression of indifference is, of course, accompanied by another Gallic shrug.)

The fact that most of his friends – and they are considerable in number – seem to have found life enriched by their association with Anquetil is crucial. Although Anquetil’s ménage à trois eventually imploded, he nevertheless succeeded – if that’s the right word – in maintaining this unique domestic arrangement for 12 years. What’s more, all the formerly antagonistic members of the Anquetil clan now live in a considerable degree of harmony, still united, it seems, by their attachment to Jacques. Sophie, Annie and Jeanine all live near each other in Corsica, of course. Dominique still lives at Les Elfes but is not excluded from this unlikely sorority.

‘We all get on fine,’ says Sophie. ‘We’re going to celebrate the 20th anniversary of his death with a reunion for his friends. It will be held at the chateau. My brother runs it with his mother, and we get on fine. We went off to Morocco for five days together. I think the relationship I have with my brother’s mother is more like that of a confidante, a friend. We call each other regularly, even if for a period we were separated and had to face up to the fact that several women loved the same man, which can cause difficulties, shall we say . . .

‘When he died, there wasn’t a great relationship between everyone – far from it. But now, 20 years later, it’s as if he’s managed to bring us back together, because there’s always this link between us. There’s lots of love and affection, and the passing of time has healed the negative things and left the positive aspects, with lots of love.’

It is this very evident love and affection that Anquetil managed to inspire from those who knew him that is perhaps his most fitting epitaph. Even those who weren’t dazzled by his exceptional talents or blind to his faults were persuaded to like and admire him. Indeed, to many, he was a hero. But the status of hero comes with a caveat, as Anquetil’s close friend Pierre Chany explained to Sophie:

‘The ancient Greeks used to admire the divinities, the titans, the giants, the demigods and other heroes, but not completely or without reserve: they knew them to be fallible. A hero is above all a man with superior powers to the rest of us mortals but who is nevertheless a man. That’s exactly what your father was.’

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