The tour de France is not just a bike race.
It’s also a dream, an illusion of what France means to us. France represents a specific grandeur, a special relationship to culture, food, art, language and landscape. The Tour De France is an illusion of France, yet also manifestation of a bigger dream: how we want the to world to be. It is a social construction of France as an idea. That idea of France is grand for a reason: its the biggest idea man ever had: liberté, egualité et fraternité. Like all big ideas the Tour De France has depth and beneath that depth there is another depth. Like an onion. When you cut the onion, it has layers. The riders pass through a village. But it is not just any village, it is the village where Matisse painted his most famous work or the town where Victor Hugo wrote his epic stories. We pass a cathedral, but it is not just any cathedral, it is the cathedral in Rouen that Marcel Proust wrote about in The Search of Lost Time.
We want to go behind the surface of Tour De France and find the France behind France. We want to peel the onion. We want to dive into to the cultural Tour De France.
An example. In the Tour, the peloton will ride through 16 different regions, each of which used to have their own unique language and have its own laws. If you go back 200 years most French people didn’t speak French. Today almost everybody in France speaks the same language, but you can still trace to more than 800 languages that used to exist. 200 years ago there were more than 400 different regional laws in France; property rights in Brittany were not the same as property rights in Languedoc. Today there is one set of laws that govern France, made by Napoleon himself called The Code. There are still different customs in each region and strong traditions in art, music, food. Yet there is sometimes very uniform French in every region; the shared language, the shared body gestures, slang, how a city looks.
"The Tour De France is an illusion of France, yet also manifestation of a bigger dream: how we want the to world to be."
In every French city there are two signs “centre ville” and “toutes directions”. The way cities are designed is the same all over France, they are shaped around the center, which is often shaped around the cathedral. All these shared characteristics have an even deeper layer – they lay the foundation of modern democracies, the republic. Modern democracy requires a shared set of values to work and most of these were created in France. Things such as basic human rights, the principles of justice, for example the right to defend yourself, the right to express yourself, property rights, the separation of church and state and many others. These are ideas and values we take for granted today, yet also ideas that are under attack from so many sides.
"So, when the riders travel 3500 kilometers around France, they also travel 3500 kilometers around a landscape that has shaped modern society."
Art, science, law, education, governance, unity, the freedom to express yourself and to be who you are. These values can be seen when you look deeper and observe the cultural products that the Tour De France travels through. Monuments, architecture, universities, museums, historic landmarks, books, paintings, sculptures, typefaces, restaurants, road names and so many other things. All of these are memories of a culture so grand and so fundamental to modern society. The French anthropologist Claude Levi Strauss wrote that when you look deeper into a landscape you discover that not only do humans have memories and a sense of identity, so dox places. Places like France exist not just through the French people but also through its remarkable footprint on culture.
That is what we want to explore in the Cultural Tour De France.
By Mikkel B. Rasmussen