The Dreyfus Affair: The Origins of the Tour de France

In September 1894, a French spy, embedded at the German Embassy in Paris as a cleaner, found in a wastepaper basket a handwritten note from an anonymous French Army officer offering to sell the Germans details of the new French artillery. Although roughly torn up, the note was easily reconstructed and in the following month all suspicion was focused on Alfred Dreyfus, a captain of artillery whose handwriting bore a passing similarity to that on the note. Dreyfus was not a popular man; despite his undoubtedly high intellect he was stand-offish and magnificently boring; worse still, his family hailed from Alsace, which was then part of Germany.

In a hurriedly arranged court martial, no evidence of substance was presented and the graphologist refuting the handwriting to be that of Dreyfus was virtually thrown out on his ear. The defendant was found guilty and packed off to Devil’s Island, a penal colony off the coast of French Guiana. Fortunately for Dreyfus, it was named for the treacherous currents in the shark-infested waters about its shores rather than for anything diabolical that happened there. Although life on the other French prison islands was nothing short of hell, the political-category inmates of Devil’s Island enjoyed comparative comfort. Measuring about three-quarters of a mile by less than a third of a mile and comprising about thirty acres, over half of which was quite uninhabitable, the island never held more than thirteen politically sensitive prisoners at any one time. Each prisoner had their own hut, was allowed to grow vegetables, could send and receive mail, and was given regular medical check-ups. But to the innocent captive a prison of any kind is still a prison and back in France the Dreyfus Affair was turning ugly.

With the political left and right so sharply divided by the affair in France, there were running battles in the boulevards and parks between the pro- and anti-Dreyfusards. In 1899, both the car-maker Comte de Dion and tyre magnate Édouard Michelin were arrested at the Auteuil racetrack for starting a ruckus during which Émile Loubet, the President of France, was whacked over the head with a walking stick. Actually, Loubet had not long been in power, having succeeded Félix Faure who, on 16 February 1899, had died in such highly unusual circumstances that many suspected he had become a victim of a pro-Dreyfusard plot. Attended that day at the Élysée Palace by his young mistress, Marguerite Steinheil, he allegedly died of a stroke as she performed on him what is perhaps best described here as ‘the love that cannot speak its name’. But, with Faure an acknowledged anti-Semite and a man determined to keep Dreyfus exactly where he was, it was strongly suspected that Steinheil, with links to the pro-Dreyfusard lobby, might have popped something into his drink to simulate a heart attack and then dropped his trousers to claim it was all due to his getting overexcited.


In August 1896, Major Ferdinand Esterhazy, the real traitor who offered information to the Germans, was exposed after correspondence between him and Maximilian von Schwartzkoppen, the German military attaché in Paris, was discovered by Marie Georges Picquart of the French army’s intelligence bureau. Instead of acting on this, the authorities packed Picquart off to obscure duties in Tunisia with orders to keep his mouth shut. He sent all his proof to Dreyfus’s lawyers, which sparked a new round of rioting, but the military still refused to backtrack. Determined not to have the verdict against Dreyfus overturned, the French High Command held a court martial behind locked doors to find Esterhazy innocent and more rioting in the streets ensued. He was allowed to slip quietly away to England and settle in Hertfordshire’s leafy Harpenden where he whiled away his time writing anti-Semitic trash until his death in 1923. The only positive result of Esterhazy’s exposure was that it escalated factional hostilities to such a degree that President Loubet offered Dreyfus a pardon in 1899, this being a ‘take it or leave it and stay on Devil’s Island’ deal which Dreyfus grabbed with both hands.

This left him a pardoned traitor instead of an innocent man, so little changed and, as those factional hostilities rumbled on, France’s leading member of the literati, Émile Zola, would soon pay with his life for his support of Dreyfus. Returning to his Paris apartment at 21 Rue de Bruxelles after a break in the country with his wife in September 1902, the couple lit the bedroom fire before retiring for the night. By the morning he was dead and Alexandrine barely alive, both overcome with carbon-monoxide poisoning. The police conducted tests, relighting the fire and shutting caged rodents in the room, but all survived. It seemed that Zola’s death was a tragic accident – but such findings did not sit well with everyone. Even the commissioner in charge of the case, Pierre Cornette, had his doubts but he was ordered to close the case as accidental death and, if he wanted to hang onto this job and pension, to keep his mouth shut. But in 1928, Zola’s killer made his deathbed confession. Chimney and roof maintenance contractor Henri-Charles Buronfosse had, in the days before the Zolas’ well-publicized return to Paris, been working on the conjoined roofs of the apartment blocks along Rue de Bruxelles and admitted to deliberately placing a mat over Zola’s chimney the evening of the couple’s return and to have then removed it early the next morning so as not to arouse suspicions. At the time of Zola’s death, Buronfosse was a leading member of Paul Déroulède’s League of Patriots – a sort of French National Front – even serving as Déroulède’s personal bodyguard. He was also remembered by others as having made death threats after reading Zola’s famous ‘J’Accuse’ article, his open condemnation of the Dreyfus cover-up.

In the aftermath of Zola’s death, accusations were rife in the media. The pro- and anti-Dreyfusard lobbies were at the time identified by the sporting papers they bought; those in support of Dreyfus tended to buy Le Vélo while their enemies favoured L’Auto. With the former printed on cheap and gaudy green-tinted paper and the latter on yellow paper, these dailies taunted each other over Zola’s death until, in the spring of the following year, the factions decided to do battle in a protracted bike race they called the Tour de France. With Le Vélo and L’Auto in charge of the event, it was the colour of the newspapers that gave rise to the yellow jersey accorded the winner and the green jersey sported by the stage winner. Given the socio-political significance of the race, cycling in the right colours suddenly became a popular way of demonstrating one’s stance on Dreyfus, and partisan cycling clubs blossomed across France.


Splashed across the front page of the left-wing newspaper L’Aurore, dated 13 January 1898, Émile Zola’s open condemnation of the anti-Semitic persecution of Captain Dreyfus and general corrupt malpractice was aimed at President Félix Faure. Left untitled by Zola, it was the newspaper’s editor, Georges Clemenceau, himself later prime minister of France, who came up with the snappy headline of ‘J’Accuse!’ – an expression which has itself entered the political rhetoric of many a nation.

Arrested on charges of sedition and put on trial for criminal libel the following month, Zola knew he was facing a long jail term, so he made a dash for the boat train at Paris’s Gare du Nord to arrive at London’s Victoria Station with nothing but the clothes in which he stood.

Staying in a series of cheap hotels and relying on the kindness of strangers and supporters, Zola spent several months in London’s south-east district of Upper Norwood, not returning to Paris until June 1899, four months after the spectacular collapse of the Faure government.

As for Alfred Dreyfus, he was finally exonerated by a military commission convened on 12 July 1906. However, the old animosities were still afoot in June 1908 when he attended the ceremony to transfer Zola’s remains from the cemetery at Montmartre to the Pantheon in Paris’s Fifth District. Standing beside Zola’s mistress, Jeanne Rozerot, who, along with her children by Zola, had been cordially invited by the widow, Dreyfus became the target of assassination. Pushing through the crowd while shouting anti-Semitic slogans, journalist Louis Grégori fired a couple of shots but only managed to hit Dreyfus in the arm. And, just to prove that right-wing lunacy was still prominent in France, his trial only lasted a matter of hours before Grégori, who had fired in front of hundreds of witnesses, was found not guilty on 11 September 1908 by a carefully selected judge and jury.

On 12 July 1935, twenty-nine years after his exoneration and to the exact hour of that deliberation, Dreyfus died peacefully in Paris before being laid to rest with military honours normally accorded those well above his then rank of lieutenant-colonel. His funeral cortege was allowed to pass through the ranks of officials and dignitaries assembled in the Place de la Concorde for the Bastille Day celebrations as it made its way to Montmartre cemetery, which was as close to an official apology as Dreyfus ever got.


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