The Sarko effect is saving the tawdry Tour

By Tim King, columnist for Prospect magazine (THE TIMES, 28/07/07):

A wave of optimism, almost euphoria is sweeping through France this summer. After several years of déclinologues spreading doom and gloom as unemployment figures rose and household incomes stagnated, suddenly the future seems rosy. The reason quite simply is Nicolas Sarkozy: in a few short weeks he has created his own style of presidency: informal, dynamic, omnipresent.

The French seem bemused, almost proud, that they have finally produced a President who seems capable of anything and who works like a demon to make anything possible. New laws follow one another through parliament so rapidly that one rarely has time to digest them – indeed, with most of France on holiday, cynics claim that this is deliberate: by the time people stagger back to work in September the fabric of their country will be scarcely recognisable.

But more than his reforms, Mr Sarkozy has won almost unanimous approval for his policy of giving senior jobs to the opposition and to women, particularly, from the immigrant tower-block estates. What better way to calm and satisfy those troubled areas than by appointing one of their own as Minister of Justice? Especially since her first task has been to push through a law on minimum sentencing for recidivists that will penalise two of her brothers, both coming before the courts for drug-related offences. Honesty, transparency, so long absent from French politics, can have no greater example than this – and of course it pulverises the opposition.

But even that is minor compared to Mr Sarkozy’s performance abroad, for what the French really want is influence on the international stage, to recapture that grandeur without which, said De Gaulle, France is simply not France. The very day of his inauguration Mr Sarkozy flew to Berlin to relaunch the Franco-German alliance. At Brussels “his” mini-treaty for Europe was hailed by all, a master stroke, according to the French press. This week he pushed even his own reforms off the front pages when, working in perfect tandem with his wife, Cécilia, he saved the lives of six Bulgarian medics sentenced to death in Libya. The French, ever in search of l’homme providentiel, believe that he has been found, and they talk of little else.

And yet. Even as French editors glorify Mr Sarkozy in his new international role, the foreign press report that the Tour de France, the world’s most popular sporting event after the Olympics and the football World Cup, has sunk beyond salvation. Germany’s two public television channels, ARD and ZDF, are refusing to broadcast the Tour. They had demanded guarantees that the German competitors were clean, so when Patrik Sinkewitz was found to have abnormal levels of testosterone in his blood, they considered the guarantees broken. Five days later one of the prerace favourites, Alexandre Vinokourov, tested positive for an illegal blood transfusion: his whole team, Astana, withdrew. The next day the Italian Cristian Moreni was led away by the gendarmes as he crossed the finishing line, having tested positive for testosterone and that same evening race leader Michael Rasmussen was thrown out by his team, Rabobank. The cyclist who has picked up Rasmussen’s yellow jersey, the Spaniard Alberto Contador, is accused openly by fellow athletes of taking the same substances as Rasmussen: “How else do you explain his [abnormally fast] performance in the mountains?” asked one, rhetorically.

There is nothing new about doping during the three solid weeks of almost unimaginable pain that is the Tour de France: “purposeless suffering”, “pure sado-masochism” are two common epithets. “You’d have to be an imbecile or a hypocrite to imagine that a professional cyclist can hold himself together without stimulants,” Jacques Anquetil, five times winner of the Tour, told the newspaper L’Equipe 40 years ago. Today cyclists routinely use EPO, which increases endurance by allowing more oxygen into the blood, or testosterone which builds muscles. Alternatively, they are given nightly blood transfusions to start each day with someone else’s fresh blood.

In the hallowed corridors of the Tour’s organisers, the Amaury Sport Organisation, the series of huge photographs of champions ends mysteriously in 1995, for the simple but staggering fact is that the last 11 winners have all been accused of some form of doping. Some have confessed, some have been proved guilty in court, some continue to deny, although the weight of disbelief among public and colleagues is against them. And the current yellow jersey, Contador, is said to be no exception. Indeed, there is a strong movement within the group of sponsors not to award a prize this year.

Surprisingly, this extraordinary state of affairs in a leading sporting event does not produce hand-wringing despair among the French, merely the Gallic shrug of indifference. There are certainly déclinologues of the Tour, but as with those who forecast the decline of France itself, they are brushed aside by the new President: “The Tour is a symbol of French identity,” Mr Sarkozy told his ministers this week, as the present crisis was breaking.

“July without the Tour is simply not July.” Or, as his hero, General de Gaulle, might have put it: “France cannot be France without the Tour.”

Even though there has been no French winner for 22 years, the Tour is an international institution, “an event which presents France to the whole world”, he said when he followed the peloton in a car last week. “Sarkozy supports us,” said one of the French riders yesterday. Translated, that means he will not let this sporting national champion die. As always, Mr Sarkozy has his finger on the pulse: television ratings are higher than ever, the crowds line the route in ever greater numbers.

Tomorrow, though, will be a moment of truth, as the depleted, partially drugged-up peloton flash up that extravagant showpiece of French grandeur, the Champs d’Elysées, to be greeted by the new President. The almost certain winner, Contador, suspected of using banned substances may be booed – or worse. Will it be a moment of French glory or simply the end of a reality soap opera? President Sarkozy’s ability to handle that moment will be watched by millions across the world, and above all by the French.