Entertainment Industry and other works

by Ellen Gillingham

The Tour de France as an Embodiment of France: Creating National Identity and Communitas

The Tour de France as an Embodiment of France: Creating National Identity and Communitas

The impact tourist attraction, Tour de France, has on local residents in the region of France and nearby countries by simultaneously symbolizing both tradition and modernity with regards to national identity, economics, and communitas


In recent decades, there has been a considerable increase in major sporting events that coincide with a competition amongst towns, cities and states eager to host them.  This stems from the idea that hosting special sporting events is beneficial involving urban a regeneration legacy, sporting legacy, tourism and enhanced image, and social and cultural benefits as well as economic ones (Higham, 2005).  The Tour de France is now the largest annual sporting event in the world.  It is the world’s most famous bicycle race.  It covers a couple thousand difficult, mountainous miles.  Since its conception, the Tour has crossed 350,000 kilometers and 500 different cities have hosted the start or finish (Desbordes, 2007).  This cycling event is an elite competition with 21 stages of racing (including a prologue) and typically covers 3,600 kilometers, mostly in France.  The Tour also has a history of undertaking discrete stages in other countries.

The Tour is very much a shared event.  It attracts 12 to 15 million spectators along the roads, which cross through around 600 cities every year.  In addition, it employs 200 vehicles as part of a publicity caravan (Prudhomme, 2012).  The organizers of the Tour shared in October 2005 that the event had exceptional media resonance with 1583 hours in Europe, 504 hours in America, 502 hours in Asia, 175 hours in Africa, 116 hours in the Middle east and 85 hours in the rest of the world (Hautbois, 2003).  Total, the event is broadcast on TV for 2,965 hours in 184 countries.  The Tour had 4 billion TV contacts all over the world.  On-field the tour had 554 media and 1,900 journalists, which created a strong press impact in Europe and the United States of America.

The race was organized in 1903 originally to increase the magazine L’Auto’s paper sales.  The Amaury Sport Organisation currently runs the race that has been held annually since its conception except during World War I and II (Thompson, 2008).  The race gained global popularity as it lengthened its route over the years.  With this change, diversity among participants increased to include riders from around the world instead of primarily French riders.  The Tour is part of the tour of 29 events and an annual ranking system known as the UCI World Tour.  This means that the teams that compete in the race are mostly UCI ProTeams, but the organizers also invite other teams.

Amaury Sport Organization, a private press group that owns other sporting events in France like l’Equipe, France Football, and Paris Marathon, organizes the event (Desbordes, 2007).  The race is normally held in July each year.  The format of the race stays consistent with at least two time trials; the passage through the mountain chains of the Pyrenees and the Alps, and the finish on the Champs-Élysées (Campos, 2003).  However, the specific route changes from year to year.

The stages are timed separately to the finish.  To determine the winner the each riders’ times are compounded with previous stage times.  The rider with the lowest aggregate time is the leader of the race and receives the coveted yellow jersey.  There are additional contests held within the Tour.  For example, the points classification for the sprinters, the mountains classification for the climbers with general classification hopes, young rider classification for the riders under the age of 26, and the team classification for the fastest teams (Prudhomme, 2012).

The Tour de France plays an important role in the culture of France.  Analyzing the social and cultural impact of the Tour de France in the region of France and nearby countries is beneficial and meaningful because understanding motivations and expectations for sport tourism is helpful in appealing to sport tourists’ interests.  The Tour has historical relationships with local communities that host it every year because it is a huge itinerant sporting event (Desbordes, 2007).  In general, sports fans and participants have shown increasing interest in traveling for sport tourism.  When sports tourists visit sports destinations, the tourists not only spend money on events and games but also bring additional revenue to local businesses (Yu, 2010).  By looking closely at the culture, behaviors in national identity, and patterns of change of the Tour de France along with economic situations, one can see the overall importance of tourism on this location.

Culture and National Identity

Sporting events are an ingrained part of national culture.  From the start, the Tour de France attracted many fans because it appealed to a demand for national unity.  First, the Tour has a cultural history because bicycling aspects from the social, cultural, and political history of the Third Republic are included in the Tour.  The race itself has diverse meanings with which the French have invested in the Tour since its origination (Thompson, 2008).  These cultural aspects deepen our understanding of the impact of sports in modern France as well as, reveal much about the aspirations and concerns of the French in the twentieth century.   The Tour represents strong values including heroismm festivity, generosity, and proximity (Hautbois, 2003).  The touristic event allows for sports tourists, governments, and cities benefit France in terms of generating revenue for and awareness of the nation, while they consume the essence of French culture and history.

The bicycle’s association with the French’s political situation of national vulnerability led to increased popularization.  For example, scientist Tissié advocated a national hygiene program of moderate physical exercise, including cycling.  He believed this would foster individual and collective health and counter fatigue (Desbordes, 2007).  Hence, he argued that the advantages of cycling were moral and psychological as well as, physical.  This argument was a reaction to the new culture of extreme athletic performance in the Modern Olympic Games.  For France, the Tour was more than an athletic contest, but a scientific experiment involving the physiology of fatigue.  The long-distance bicycle racers were a cultural symbol of training with intensity and speed to do away with fatigue (Thompson, 2008).  At the time of the Tour’s creation, the French were investing in the bicycle to overcome the traumas involved with an uncertain future.  The German Reich confronted the French with threats.  This caused the French to feel particularly sensitive to social change.  They needed a communal activity to encourage patriotism and unity.  The French were facing a move into modernity with regards to politics, technologies, and culture.

Furthermore, the bicycle modified society by contradicting retrograde theories that opposed physical exercise and glorified intellect.  The Tour in essence changed the culture of society.  It emphasized the importance of physical fitness and health.  The race shows a divide in today’s French youth and the nation’s youth of the past because today the youth are more willful than their predecessors were (Alderson, 1972).  The race changed France to a nation aware of danger and not afraid of combat.

In addition, the bicycle is a cultural symbol of technological modernity.  It developed in a time when new locomotive forms were coming to France and consumer goods were thriving (Alderson, 1972).  The bicycle also spoke to the increasing consumer culture of the early twentieth-century France.  With this modern feel in mind, the Tours organizers work to perpetuate it annually by following new trends and designing new routes to reflect them.  The increasingly pervasive commercialization of sport and the development of new mass media both are applied to the sport to prolong its cultural history.  Both trends also function to circulate the Tour in French society and globally.

The Tour de France was born out of the French’s deepest cultural desires and anxieties.  The race is the essence of the nation at that time.  It showed supporters that physical exercise is important symbolizing a new strength in the nation.  Competitive cycling was often facilitated by its inclusion in traditional or official celebrations.  Bicycle races accompanied public festivities and the national holiday on July 14 (Durry, 1982).

It was the first of its kind, so its freshness and innovation needed to be given great emphasis.  One innovation was the “pelonton.”  This is the pack in which the racers started (Prudhomme, 2012).  Another was the six stages format from July 1 through July 19 and included two or three rest days between stages.  This new idea allowed the racers to recover.  The stages consist of: Paris-Lyon (467 kilometers), Lyon-Marseille (374 kilometers), Maresille-Toulouse (423 kilometers), Toulouse-Bordeaux (268 kilometers), Bordeaux-Nantes (394 kilometers), and Nantes- Ville-d’Avray (471 kilometers), a total of 2397 kilometers (Monnier & Berger, 1990).

Over the years, the race changed adding difficulty to include more stages and a greater overall distance.  The changes also reflect the Tour’s reputation of modernity.  The Tour increasingly commercializes itself to keep up with trends in global culture (Thompson, 2008).  This change means that the race is marketed, packaged, and sold to millions of fans through media.  Today, the race is sponsored by gigantic multinational corporations and aired worldwide (Prudhomme, 2012).  However, when the race first started, technological capabilities were unable to achieve this.  As a result, a new sports paper was created by Henri Desgrange, the editor in chief of the sports daily, L’Auto-Velo (Thompson, 2008).  To ensure that the Tour would be successful Desgrange strove to link it in the minds of the public with national revival “that only the modern march of progress could make possible” (Thompson, 2008).

At first, contestants were slow to register and the organizers feared that they might have to cancel the race.  However, racers inspired cities with messages of progress (Thompson, 2008).  As its popularity increased, more racers joined the race.  The race organizers announced the registration of contestants by province, until all regions of France were represented (Prudhomme, 2012).  This increase in representation assured fans that this was a Tour for the whole nation.  Additionally, racers gained a local following, which increased their press coverage.

The presence of the Tour’s heroic and strong characteristics shows how meaningful the Tour is to France as a cultural symbol of both technological modernity and national pride.  The country’s challenges and accomplishments are reflected in the Tour’s history.  The race’s essence remains constant throughout its history because it will always reflect French culture.  It appeals to a demand for national unity, promotes civic pride, and community cohesion.  These nationalistic aspects are communicated symbolically to the event’s audience.  The tourism allows France to benefit from an increased global awareness and understanding of the essence of French culture, which reflects French history and identity as a country.

France’s founders carried out the tie between national identity and the Tour by giving it a name embedded in the nation’s collective memory.  The term “Tour de France” spawned out of a need for consolidation (Dauncey & Hare, 2005).  Internal religious resistance and external conflicts threatened France’s national identity.  The Tour is a “‘tour of inspection’ or a dutiful personal and collective appropriation and assessment of cultural heritage” (Dauncey & Hare, 2005, p. 153).  The Tour became a consolidation of national identity.  It continued this representation throughout the World Wars.

Specifically, in the mid-1940s, the race was crucial to France.  American tourism to the race in these times provided France’s economic regeneration.  The race symbolized France’s war-weary feelings, so thousands of American tourists, primarily proud former GIs, were persuaded to give the French the much-needed US dollars (Endy, 2004).  Truly, tourism was a key component of the Marshall Plan, the American program to aid Europe where the United States gave monetary support.  Tourism combined both economic and political benefits.  “In the eyes of the US government, American tourists were not only dispensers of greenbacks (in 1949, a full one quarter of all dollars earned by Western Europeans came from US tourists), but de facto ambassadors of the American way of life in the world-wide public relations struggle against Communism” (Endy, 2004).  Because the Tour functioned as a symbol of struggling French national identity and the way being the world-savior is ingrained in Americans lifestyle American tourism in France appealed to both countries.

The Tour’s successive organizers have consistently sought to associate the race with modernity and progress.  In his book on the cultural history of France, Christopher Thompson states that “Henri Desgrange and his journalists argued that the Tour would introduce the recently invented bicycle to rural France and inspire a listless generation of Frenchmen to exercise” (Thompson, 2008).  This scale and difficulty of the race had never been seen before, so the alliance of modern sport and technology helped solidify France as moral and physical in the 20th century.  This symbolism also came into play following the World Wars.  Logistical organization and television coverage showed that the Tour’s relationship with modernity and technology were still strong.  The Tour has historically and consistently been the essence of France’s nationalism.  The Tour foreshadowed progress by engendering modern life with increased media attention (Thompson, 2008).


The Tour de France generates many expenses each year, although cities have to pay to host the event.  Only governments possess the funds to host the event because they use taxpayers’ money, but this enables other broader economic benefits.  Although the event has remarkable effects on France’s feelings of nationalism and communitas, there have been few evaluations of the economic impact of the Tour.  One specialist in sports marketing, Michel Desbordes attributed this to the many variables integrated in this type of survey.  This would require a strong methodology (Desbordes, 2007).  Developing a model could have a political aim to justify the communities’ expenses or a financial aim to estimate what a big sporting event generates.

In only a matter of five years, the Tour’s routes cross all France’s regions, so it is important not to overestimate finances for political support.  Other sports tourism data estimates the economic impact for France to an extent.  However, in their research, Howard and Crompton found that baseball franchises in cities just 30 miles away from each other gave very different results (Crompton, Lee, & Shuster, 2001).  The impact estimated before the events can be biased and exaggerated to meet the goal of creating legitimacy, so the communities subsidize sports teams (Desbordes, 2007).  Officials can be invested in using sporting events to promote a region, so they overemphasize the economic value of the activity for the region.

However, studies have shown that professional sports teams have an uncertain economic effect on personal income.  It appears that the “economic impact of a permanent team or stadium is very low for the appearance of substitution effects” (Desbordes, 2007).  Uniquely, the Tour is distinct in that no stadiums are built, it is an annual event that depends on cities, there are no ticketing expenses (the touristic expenses are usually very high), there is no cost for taking care of the infrastructure, and there is no expectation of thousands of permanent jobs.  The economic impact has a much more important potential, and it justifies the motivation of local cities or regions to measure it in order to justify their investment on this event.

Features of the human resources environment are quite different to those of the traditional workforce.  Compared to other times of the year, during the Tour, a significant special work force is needed (Bull & Lovell, 2007).  This employs an event management team, paid staff, hundreds of volunteers, and multiple contractors.  However, the working environment may not be optimal for everyone as it is characterized by a fast pace, little time for training, motivation for retention and customer service, high stress levels, and many fatigued workers.

Unlike the measurable economic boosts from tourism arising from visitors coming to watch the race, there are also less tangible benefits from the legacy of promoting the region to potential tourists and investors.  Every year, in France, there is intense competition amongst towns to host the various stages for the prestige and perceived beneficial impacts that the race produces, including massive press coverage (Lamont, 2009).  Each year a few stages may take place in neighboring countries including England, Belgium, Italy and Spain.

For example, in 1974, the route went up and down the Plympton by-pass in Devon, but this was not seen as a very successful event.  In 1994, the route went through Canterbury, but again was not seen as a success.  However, in 2007, the trail went along a route between Dover and Brighton. “Hosting the first stage in England, partly due to the relative novelty value, would produce substantial benefits for London… Transport for London also claimed that the race would showcase London and Kent to millions of spectators around the world and help to promote them as tourist destinations and places capable of hosting international sporting events, especially important given the forthcoming 2012 Olympics” (Bull & Lovell, 2007).  This novelty was seen as a huge success with an estimated 1 million spectators in this section.

The extent to which cities actually gain economically has been a rather equivocal question.  Benefits lie in changing the image of both the city and the state as a whole by promoting nationalism for France.  Spectacular events such as, the Tour de France, are the image builders of modern tourism (Weiler & Hall, 1992, p. 1).  Major sporting events can build a nation’s image.  Instead of being seen for their political and militaristic failures, France can now be seen for its athleticism.  This can help to build visitation during other seasons, as well.  For example, London and Kent now harbor a legacy for once being on the route of the Tour.  Mega sports events can also enhance the status of smaller cities in France, increasing tourism there as well as, popular tourist cities like Paris.

In the research done by Desbordes, he uses the Leisure Industry Research Centre method to estimate the economic impact of the Tour.  This approach requires surveying about 1,634 people representing all the categories on the event to approximate the expenses generated by the event.  The economic impact is measured in quantitative dimensions and qualitative dimensions.  In the case of the Tour, it is not only important to integrate the cost of the event that is equivalent to the money paid to the organizer, but also all the costs induced by the event.  For example, the City of Strasbourg paid about 0.5 million euros to host the departure of the 2006 race, but the global cost will be around 1.5 million euros (Desbordes, 2007). This has to be covered by the economic impact, which includes people who work on the event, renovated roads, new buildings, and other costs.

Desbordes concludes that previous surveys show how profitable the regional development can be through the Tour.  The Tour has an indisputable influence on the local economy and citizens can be pleased with the event.  However, this kind of study should reflect moral aspects because private organizers can use results to increase the cost of the event for local communities.  This risk could lead to the opposite situation compared to what is expected.  For example, if organizers increase the “price for the right to host a stage, the risk is important that small cities and regions could not pay for it” (Desbordes, 2007).  The Tour would lose its chance to display France’s global diversity.


These impacts similar to the nationalistic are less tangible than the economic ones.  Victor Turner’s concept of communitas denotes an intense feelings of social togetherness and belonging, often in connection with rituals (AnthroBase, 1998).  Communitas is the very spirit of community, the feeling of great social equality, solidarity, and togetherness.  In addition to the nationalistic and economic impacts, the Tour also produces various social ones. Civic pride, community cohesion, and the sense of spectacle and atmosphere make up the social impacts, which are important in fully understanding the effects of the Tour on France.  Some benefits include creating better social interaction and helping to develop community cohesion and social understanding.  Communitas is when of people experiencing liminality together.  This term distinguishes the idea of social relationships from structure, which only delineates common living areas. The feelings created by the Tour in the community are sacred and nationalistic instead of simply secular.

Those who are planning the event, in order to leverage a range of benefits, attempt to create a particular atmosphere that, in the case of mega events, often involves spectacle.  This phenomenon can be referred to as an ‘experience economy’.  Similarly, communitas is used “to describe a unique social bond between strangers who happen to have in common the fact that they are in some way travelling or “onholiday” together” (Bull & Lovell, 2007, p. 256).  For local populations, hosting events communitas is the sense of community, where the sense of ‘unity’ comes from the celebratory feeling and mass gathering.

At the Tour, Communitas is enhanced because a free and free-range event is more open than a restricted, ticketed event.  This helps with increasing community pride, individual involvement in the community, and opportunities for entertainment (Campos, 2003).  However, the Tour also causes disruption through road closures, which can cause an aspect of displacement, which involves residents feeling less inclined to go out in the community because of crowding.  However, sharing this burden and work ethic can create community feelings, bonded through coping with different dilemmas brought about by road closures.

The community has always been important to the race organizers.  At one point, millionaire racers the Pelissier brothers, were dismissed because they showed too much of a distinction between the professional cyclists and everyday workers.  Henri Desgrange, who managed the Tour at this time, feared that their “honorary profession” was too different from the “workers in mines, coal-bunkers, [and] polders, who struggle their entire lives” (Dauncey & Hare, 2005).  Additional claims were made that the managers exploited the racers.  Fearing a bad reputation for the race, Desgange made important changes to represent the Tour to communities, so they would continue their support of the race.

Christopher Thompson raises the point of geography in his book on the Tour.  He states, “No bicycle race – indeed, no sporting event – has been more intimately associated with French geography and the identities it has shaped than the Tour de France” (Thompson, 2008).  The race’s itinerary has been deemed as an annual pilgrimage into the nation’s history by the French daily newspaper, L’Équipe and its ancestor, L’Auto, a general sports paper (Desgrange, 2001).  This history not only includes its glorious moments, but also its painful memories.  The Tour functioned to solidify communitas by stressing the common experiences and territory that bind the French together as one nation and one national community, especially during the World Wars.

From the Tour’s origination, Frenchmen have been aware of the land they shared.  The first two Tours actually followed the typical journeymen’s circuit, stopping in Paris, Lyon, Marseille, Toulouse, and Nantes (Prudhomme, 2012).   L’Auto made the first great attempt to reconcile regional and political differences with national identity that has challenged France historically (Thompson, 2008).  Over the years, the Tour has struggled with the difficulties inherent in reinforcing unity while celebrating diversity.

However, the race is an important cultural and political symbol that succeeds by not imposing a strict historical master narrative, but by looking beyond France’s borders and beyond its past to the future.  The Tour “endorsed the general trend in Western Europe toward integration by ‘exporting’ the Tour to neighboring countries” (Thompson, 2008).  By moving beyond the borders, the Tour recognizes different histories and culturally significant identifiers each year.


The Tour is a long-standing institution of French popular culture and a modern, publicity-generating spectacle.  The event acts as a bridge between traditional and new forms of commercialism and mass promotion.  The Tour is the leading great cycle competition of the world, but also a kind of social and national embodiment, which is therefore to be put in the context of tourism, culture, history, and economics.  Although the popularity of the race is unquestionably high, the event’s exact economic benefits are yet to be determined.

The Tour de France had a mass appeal with images of the foundation of French popularity.  Along with shared traditions, language, self-government, and a unique history, a distinct country establishes an essential feature of nationalism through the Tour that other shared cultural aspects do not match.  The social, cultural, and political history of France especially under the Third Republic and during both World Wars, is represented through the bicycle race in every aspect of the Tour.  The race has diverse meanings for the French including seemingly contradictory, modernity and history.  However, a deep understanding of the impact of the Tour on France reveals that the two symbols intersect.

The Tour constructs identity for the French as an expression of universal roles, social identities, histories, tensions, and conflicts.  It creates feelings of shared interest, values, and social visions.  By reviving the history behind the Tour, a demonstration of France’s historical narrative is created.  The Tour’s image is infused with meanings worldwide.  In essence, the Tour is an embodiment of depictions of France, ranging from romanticized representations of a traditional, steady, and nationalistic community to chaotic images of a modern messy country alive with by social passion and political importance.

“I pledge on my honor that I have not given or received any unauthorized assistance on this exam”


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This entry was posted on December 11, 2012 by in Reading Analysis and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , .
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