Les prisonniers

For their 1982 album, The Number of the Beast, the British heavy metal band Iron Maiden recorded a song called The Prisoner, inspired by the 1960s TV show of the same name. The song is introduced by dialogue from the actual series (“Who are you? The new number 2. Who is number 1. You are number 6. I am not a number, I am a free man…”). The band’s manager had to call the show’s creator and lead actor, Patrick McGoohan, for permission to use the dialogue. Despite managing such a devilish band, the manager was hesitant to ask the suave and sophisticated McGoohan. According to the story, after a stumbled request, McGoohan replied simply, “Do it!” and hung up.

The Prisoner was a surreal and psychedelic show befitting its time, and its cryptic and confusing premise and story foreshadowed more recent shows like Twin Peaks and Lost. McGoohan was in some ways reprising his secret agent character from Danger Man. But we know little of his character except that he has been kidnapped and is being held prisoner in a seaside village (the show was filmed in Wales in Portmeirion, famous for its Italian-inspired architecture). The show flirts with ideas of totalitarianism, mind control, and indoctrination. McGoohan had complete creative freedom over the show and ran loose. Unfortunately, the show’s producer pulled the plug on the series, forcing a rushed and surreal final episode that left viewers agog.

The Prisoner was a hit in France, released there just before the May 1968 riots. As commentators have pointed out, despite its anti-communitarian message of personal liberation – the antithesis of the spirit of ’68 – it was wildly popular. McGoohan himself suggested that its popularity might have been due to the spirit of revolution in the show, his character’s attempts to throw off the yoke of oppression of the order under which he is held captive.

Prisonniers and forçats

The title of the show in France was, of course, Le Prisonnier, the direct translation. In the history of the Tour de France, we are familiar with the phrase, les forçats de la route. This is often translated as ‘the convicts of the road’ or ‘the prisoners of the road’ and – of which more below – was coined in the 1920s to describe the situation of Tour participants at a time when labour issues were coming to the fore (and would indeed come to a head in France under the Popular Front in the 1930s).

But ‘prisoner’ or even ‘convict’ is not a perfect translation of forçat.
In Le Petit Larousse, forçat is defined as a man condemned to the galleys or the prison work force (a prisonnier is simply someone in prison). So it is much more specific in its meaning than even convict (Matt Rendell uses this term in his translation in Blazing Saddles, for example), unless your impression of a convict is someone in a chain gang rather than a common thief being shipped to Australia. As well, the word convict is also translated in some dictionaries as détenu, or detainee, which is clearly not illustrative enough. In his cultural history of the Tour, which discusses les forçats de la route at some length, Christopher Thompson translates it as ‘convict labourers of the road’. Interestingly, Le Petit Larousse also gives another definition of forçat: a man whose living conditions are particularly distressing.

The issue of working (and living) conditions for Tour riders was under scrutiny in the 1924 edition of the race as part of the ongoing battle between Henri Pélissier – the great French rider and winner of the 1923 edition, the first French winner since 1912 – and Tour boss Henri Desgrange. Pélissier was an outspoken character of mercurial disposition. He had come close to winning the Tour before, but by 1923, late in his career, was considered only an outside chance. His battles over the rules and regulations of the Tour had been ongoing for years.

Desgrange was a despot. He enacted a tyranny over the Tour (and the other races L’Auto organized) that would have made the overlords in The Prisoner proud. (Indeed, Pélissier was like McGoohan’s character, raging against the system.) Desgrange was determined that there would be no advantage gained that would somehow prevent the Tour being a competition of individuals evenly matched to secure a true champion. Hence, derailleurs were banned for years, as were metal rims in favour of wooden ones, and drafting was prohibited for a time. For a period, the Tour supplied the riders with identical bikes.

Desgrange was also convinced that sport – specifically cycling – would be a ‘civilizing’ force for the predominantly working class racers. The rules and regulations for conduct would transform them into presentable bourgeoisie. Just like in The Prisoner, any individual flair would be allowed – good for publicity after all – only if the individual eventually conformed to Desgrange’s vision for the Tour and his civilizing mission. There are echoes of both these ideals today in the myriad of rules that the UCI has for bike specifications and the presentation of the riders.

The outcome of the brouhaha in 1924 was actually a union for the riders. But under Pélissier’s leadership it was short lived. It successfully protested against uniform food amounts for all the riders, apparently, but collapsed soon after. Pélissier himself was simply too confrontational; his politics might have been in the right place (on the left), but his temper was too fiery for reasoned negotiations.

Pélissier’s main confrontation with Desgrange in 1924 was over the issue of jerseys. The Tour supplied all the equipment for the riders, including their jerseys, and everything (bizarrely) had to be returned at the end of the race. Pélissier wanted to begin stage 3 – 405 kilometres from Cherbourg to Brest – wearing two jerseys as it was cold at the early morning start. He planned to abandon one along the way, and after being warned by a commissar, duly tried to do so in Coutances. After falling afoul of Desgrange, Henri Pélissier withdrew, along with his brother Francis and another rider, Maurice Ville.

Henri and Francis riding the Tour.

Henri and Francis riding the Tour.

Albert Londres, and a small clarification

Enter Albert Londres, an investigative journalist who was following the Tour for the newspaper Le Petit Parisien. No lightweight (like Oprah, perhaps), he had established his reputation writing about France’s penal colonies off French Guiana on the Iles de Salut (where we get the term Devil’s Island, the setting for the book and later the movie Papillon) and in Cayenne. He had also reported on Russia just after the October Revolution and went on to report on other social issues like mental asylums.

Talking to the Pélissier brothers in a café in Coutances he had his scoop. The brothers launched into a detailed litany of their complaints and the hardships they were suffering in the Tour. Perhaps overstating their predicament, they even showed Londres their boxes of ‘dope’. As Francis said, even using the English word, “…nous marchons à la dynamite” – we run on dynamite. Londres had an explosive story and it was duly published on the next day, 27 June, on the front page. According to many sources, including Les Woodland, Matt Rendell, and even Wikipedia, he did so under the headline: Les forçats de la route.

Except that he didn’t. Thanks to the digital archive at the BnF, the national library of France, we can view that very edition of Le Petit Parisien online. The actual headline is much less dramatic: ‘The Pélissier brothers and their comrade Ville abandon’. No mention of forçats at all. So why the confusion? Graeme Fife seems to come the closest to the true story, correctly noting that Londres later published a book, in 1925, titled Avec Les Forçats de la RouteThis was later published as Tour de France, Tour de Souffrance, which was actually one the headlines Londres used in his column, again on the front page of Le Petit Parisien on 19 July.

The confusion down the years is understandable, some 90 years ago. As well, it seems like the phrase les forçats de la route was already in usage. Some attribute it to Henri Pélissier some years before, others to Desgrange himself, and one online source even suggests it was coined by Henri Decoin, who wrote for L’Auto and first used it to describe the touristes-routiers, the self-supporting amateur riders who were allowed to enter the Tour alongside the professionals and were not supported by the race organization at all.

Londres’ column and his book sparked interest in the conditions of the Tour riders and provided for a lively debate at a time when workers’ rights were at the forefront of politics in France (as elsewhere). Londres also had a flair for the dramatic, writing, for example: “For a month they have fought with the road. The battles have taken place in the middle of the night, the early hours of the morning, through midday, groping through fog so thick it makes you retch, into headwinds which laid them flat, under the sun which, as in the Crau [the far south of France], spit-roasted them on the handlebars.” Great stuff!

The Village

The Pélissier brothers Francis and Charles continued to feature in the history of French cycling for some time after the 1920s. Henri, however, was shot to death in 1935 by his mistress using the same gun that his wife had used to commit suicide. Ironically, the Popular Front would introduce the long summer holidays in France the following year in 1936, holidays that would prove to be a boon for the popularity of the Tour up to even today. Henri would surely have approved.

One of Henri’s other issues was with the length of the stages in the Tour. By his rationale, doping was the only way to survive. The Tour in 1924 was 5,425 kilometres over 15 stages; the shortest stage was 275 kms, the longest 482 kms! This debate resonated for decades afterwards, with commentators even arguing in recent times that long, arduous stages have encouraged doping.

Ultimately, the Tour riders were not prisoners, or convict labourers. They were not forced to race and subject themselves to the conditions of the Tour.  They were free men. Still, as in the second meaning of forçat, their living – or working – conditions were particularly distressing. Just because they were volunteers didn’t make them exempt from reasonable employment. This discussion in some ways gets to the heart of professional sport. With all the armchair talk of ‘harden the f–k up’ and so on, is it just more and more suffering that makes for a better spectacle?

And so we return to The Prisoner. McGoohan’s character is imprisoned in a seaside resort known only as the Village. His individuality his stifled and he is forced to conform to the rules, regulations and rhythms of his sheltered life. All aspects of his existence are codified and monitored. Transgressions are severely punished. There is of course a danger in taking the analogy too far, and one does so here only tongue in cheek, but surely it is not too much of a coincidence that the start of each Tour stage takes place at the Village Départ.

The Prisoner in the Village

The Prisoner in the Village.

2 thoughts on “Les prisonniers

  1. Another great article.

    It reminds me of one of the great forcats of literature, Jean Valjean in Les Miserables. To me, the term would mean a prisoner sentenced to a life of hard labour.

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