Dispatch

France vs. Lance

The French aren't surprised by the fall of America's cycling hero. They knew he was cheating all along.

PARIS — Just two weeks before France learned that Lance Armstrong would confess his sins to Oprah Winfrey, readers of the popular French journalism and investigation website Rue89.com elected the Texan as "The Sports Bastard of the Year." In an open race, he won easily, with more than 40 percent of the vote.

Still, that selection may say more about Rue89's edgy readers than general sentiments here toward Armstrong. It isn't that the French were ever particularly fond of the seven-time Tour de France winner, but feelings here are, well, a little complicated. For one, a singularly focused, supremely confident, and utterly doubt-free American was always going to stand out in a country known for endless self-questioning, philosophical debate, and world-weary skepticism. And, yeah, he once inspired questions about a changing world in which an American could so thoroughly dominate a race long led by Europeans. But the main issue was something else: A whole lot of French people wanted to believe in Armstrong's cancer recovery-to-Tour-triumph storyline, but just couldn't bring themselves to do so.

So now, as word spreads that the man who transformed the world's most prestigious cycling race into the Tour de Lance, is finally coming (sort of) clean, there is a measure of vindication. But unlike the 'Say it ain't so, Lance' reaction of Armstrong's remaining die-hard fans in the United States, the response here has really been: Mais, bien sûr!

Daniel Baal, the former president of the French Cycling Federation and a former Tour de France organizer, put it this way: "In 1999, some of us had our doubts. But we couldn't prove it." That changed when the French sports daily L'Equipe published a devastating investigative report in 2005. "The Armstrong myth was finished," Baal explained, adding, "For me, the Armstrong page was turned long ago."

That said, the French attitude toward Armstrong is more complex than simple schadenfreude. The years of Armstrong's dominance were part-nightmare -- a cheater was winning and getting away with it -- but they also had dreamy elements. His heroic narrative, straight out of Hollywood, in so many ways, broadened the popularity of a race that projects France's natural wonders around the world. (In other words, Armstrong's success brought further glory for France.)

Yet that same Hollywood narrative, and Armstrong's superhuman performance, made many French people suspect that they were watching a fictional tale. The French watch tons of big-budget Americans films, and the early Armstrong narrative was a perfect fit. Too perfect, in fact -- and that inspired disbelief. (The French may watch such clean storylines on celluloid or on their televisions, but they rarely fully give themselves over the way that most people do in other countries, largely because they have a hard time believing that the world can be simple.) And as each Tour de Lance sequel ended the same way, with Armstrong atop the winner's podium, it only re-enforced the impression that none of this was possible, especially in a sport already marred by near-constant doping scandals. But Armstrong's acknowledgement, after all this time, is a reminder of how deeply France's race was tainted.

Interestingly, the clearest sense of vindication does not come from normal French people or even riding fans; it comes from the French media, who have been doggedly pursuing the story for years, producing books with titles like L.A. Confidential: The Secrets of Lance Armstrong and The Great Imposter: One Tour Too Many.

French journalists on the Armstrong beat faced relentless attacks from Armstrong, his teammates, and his PR reps. They were asked: What sort of an asshole suggests that a guy recovering from cancer would put his body at further risk by doping just to win a bicycle race? Other French reporters were told, during Armstrong's "miracle" race of 1999, that their suspicions about the American were the "jealousies of old Europe." (See Armstrong's good friend Robin Williams breaking out his best Pépé le Pew accent to mock suspicious French fans in this 2002 interview with Jon Stewart.)

The headlines in recent days have been merciless. A Jan. 17 article in Libération, which has relentlessly pursued the story for years, ran under the title: "Armstrong: Me, doped? Never!" Accompanying articles highlight how the Texan would bring up his cancer to defend himself, not to mention his efforts to humiliate or destroy the credibility of those who accused him, whether other cyclists, race officials, or reporters.

The "Me, doped? Never!" article goes on to note that while Americans seems to relish public confessions of wrongdoing, Armstrong's lies may have lasted too long and gone too far to allow him back into society's good graces. As a reader, it is easy to get the impression that the journalist is rooting for just that result. But the French, like Baal, have largely moved on, and they have largely viewed the confession with a troubled fascination that they apply to the notably American ritual of televised confessions for public figures caught in wrongdoing.

People here are full of questions: Will Americans forgive their deceiver? Could Armstrong go to prison, whether for obstructing justice or lying under oath? How many millions will the fallen hero have to pay to those who he has wronged (like sponsors and those he has sued in the past)? But it is the story of human betrayal that likely fascinates people here most: Will a man who long succeeded thanks to a team of people dedicated to protecting his epic deception now turn on his own helpers?

French communications expert Olivier Cimelière offered a French perspective on the Texan's rehabilitation effort to Francetvinfo.fr: "Lance Armstrong no longer had a choice. This was his last shot, to limit the damage, by betting on redemption, which is very strong in American culture." But Cimelière believes there is hope for Armstrong. "When I worked for Nestlé Waters, we did polling before sponsoring the Tour de France," Cimelière said. "We realized that the majority of people didn't care about doping scandals. It is the show that interests them. Those people will easily forgive Armstrong."

Interestingly, that analysis may also apply to some prominent figures in France's political class. The very conservative former minister of the interior, Claude Guéant -- who was, until May, France's austere top cop -- told a journalist on the Canal Plus television channel recently that "despite the doping, I cannot keep myself from admiring him, because cycling is an extremely hard, demanding sport."

Guéant's former boss, Nicolas Sarkozy, may well feel the same way. Sarkozy, a cycling aficionado himself, repeatedly lauded Armstrong's drive and effort, and the two men also shared a personal friendship. Then-President Sarkozy even quipped during a 2009 lunch with Armstrong at the Elysée presidential palace that "even Asterix takes a magic potion" -- a kind of weirdly prescient apology for the American cycling star. (Armstrong also gave the French president a $7,000 racing bike. Sarkozy has often been filmed proudly riding alongside his bodyguards, family, and celebrity friends.)

The former head of state has not entirely escaped the Armstrong fallout. In an article published in September 2012, Le Nouvel Observateur reported that Armstrong had told Pierre Bordry, when he was the head of the French Agency for the Battle Against Doping, that he could call his "personal friend" -- then-President Sarkozy -- to get Bordry fired for harassing him. The anti-doping official sought clarification from the presidential palace and got no response. He later resigned. Armstrong's confession is likely to bring more attention to the role of many enablers, including an array of powerful friends.

In the meantime, in something of a quirk, the hashtag #jeudiconfession (Jeudi means Thursday) trended throughout France in the run up to the Oprah broadcast. Most were cute admissions that had nothing to do with the Tour de France, along the lines of "I'm in love with my phone," or "I wish today were Friday." Some were only slightly more serious: "I have a hard time projecting myself into the future, and that makes girls run away."

Armstrong hadn't yet tweeted any confessions. But here in France, a few people have begun to tweet them in his name, or about him. One, by someone using the handle "Quelqu'un," involved a plausible prediction: "Forget about it, tomorrow this hashtag is reserved for @LanceArmstrong."

George Burns/Oprah Winfrey Network via Getty Images

Dispatch

Tight Times in the Grand Bazaar

Are Iranians really feeling the pinch of U.S. and international sanctions on their economy?

TEHRAN — In the Grand Bazaar, throngs of customers stand aside to make way for porters as they doggedly pull rattling metal carts. They carry carpets and leather shoes, keeping goods pulsing in and out of the Iranian capital's commercial artery. Shelves are stocked with foreign and domestic products alike, from Lindt chocolate to counterfeit Nike slippers.

If you listen to the talk in Western capitals, harsh international sanctions on Iran's energy and banking industries are well on their way to bringing the Islamic Republic to its knees. And there is no doubt that staggering levels of inflation, a heavily devalued currency, and soaring unemployment have taken a toll on general living standards. In conversations, it often seems that all Iranians can talk about is the economy.

"Things have become much more expensive the past five to six months," says a shopkeeper who, like most interviewed for this article, asked not to be named for fear of government retribution. "It's because we're not selling any oil," he says, blaming Western sanctions for his travails.

Despite the hardship, however, Iran is far from the breaking point. Six months after the United States and the European Union hit Iran with the harshest sanctions regime ever, life in the Islamic Republic still trudges along.

In the bazaar, a 2-foot-long loaf of fresh barbari bread costs 6,000 rials ($0.20), as it did six months ago. Government efforts to curtail rising prices on some staples include ramping up grain imports, mainly from the European Union. Energy prices have shot up, but are still low. The monthly energy bill for a small household in Tehran runs around $15 to $20. Kebab eateries are bustling during lunch time. "Khoob nist, bad nist," traders here generally reply when asked how business is going -- "not good, not bad."

Historically, Tehran's bazaar played a critical role in Iranian uprisings. So when bazaaris protested in October over the devaluation of the rial, some Western media got on their toes, ready for a dawning Persian Spring. U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that "clearly the Iranian people are demanding better from their government" and that the United States was "watching the situation very closely."

But if Western policymakers thought the bazaari protests would lead to broader calls for regime change, they were wrong. The protests lasted only a day, and the Grand Bazaar quickly returned to its usual, bustling self.

Deeply ingrained memories of past uprisings are one reason that very few Iranians think the sanctions will push people to rise up against the regime. The situation today is still much better than during the destructive Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, when people survived on food coupons. And with the memory of the bloodshed, and for many the disappointment, of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in the back of their minds, there is little thirst inside the country for another attempt to overthrow the regime.

"We already had a revolution 33 years ago," says Ali, 27, a veteran activist. "It's Iranian popular culture for fathers and mothers to tell their children: 'We made a mistake.'"

Ali helped organize some of the Green Movement opposition protests after the fraudulent 2009 presidential election. The brutal crackdown that followed is another factor that has killed any fervor for unrest. The opposition was scattered to the wind in the years that followed, and most activists were silenced, were imprisoned, or fled the country.

"There are no opposition networks, no authority left," says Ali. He explains that though the repression of the Green Movement may have been less deadly than repression of Arab Spring uprisings, the regime has continued to persecute, monitor, and arrest activists, effectively keeping Iranians in a vise of fear.

"Sometimes, news about hunger strikes in prisons comes from the government itself," he says. "They have an interest in showing that things are worse than they might be in reality."

That's not to say Western sanctions haven't dealt a serious blow to the Iranian economy. The Islamic Republic has suffered at least a 40 percent drop in oil exports in 2012, and its international financial transactions have also been constrained by the sanctions regime. In March, SWIFT, a network handling most international money transactions, blocked 30 Iranian banks from using its services. After a third round of nuclear talks between Iran and the great powers broke down in June, the European Union cut oil imports from Iran, and the United States banned the world's banks from doing oil transactions with Iran. Japan, India, South Africa, and Turkey have decreased crude imports, in part because of pressure from the United States. Chinese imports, too, have seen a slight dip due to contract disputes.

These historically unprecedented economic measures have been responsible for eroding the country's foreign exchange reserves and undermining confidence in the rial. In the unofficial market, the national currency has plummeted from roughly 15,000 rials to the dollar in the beginning of 2012 to roughly 33,000 rials this Jan. 10, unleashing inflation of at least 40 to 60 percent. The situation has also created a shortage of drugs and medical supplies, which led to the sacking of Health Minister Marzieh Dastjerdi, a convenient scapegoat.

It is common to hear Iranians bash their politicians for economic mismanagement and corruption. Working as a chauffeur at Tehran's domestic airport, Farzaneh, 38, also moonlights as a driver of a shared taxi. "These are worth nothing," she says, waving her hand at the spread of rials on the dashboard. Regulated by the government, taxis have been barred from raising their prices, so instead, Farzaneh, a divorced mother of one, works two jobs. "Every 40 hours, I sleep once," she says to the passengers in the cab, who nod in sympathy.

Many Iranians, however, don't just blame the Islamic Republic for the dire economic conditions -- they blame the financial sanctions, which they view as hostile as any armed attack. With seven months left in office, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has tried to save his legacy by harnessing these grievances. As part of a comprehensive economic reform, the government offers almost all Iranians 450,000 rials per month (now worth roughly $13.50) to compensate for higher energy prices, a measure that has also helped drive inflation. For a low-income family with a few children, that amount can come close to a monthly income.

For a long time, Iranian politicians denied that the sanctions had any effect, but that narrative changed recently. Ahmadinejad, who has come under fiery internal criticism from parliamentarians for the state of the economy, redirected blame toward Iran's foreign antagonists. "A clandestine, vast, and heavy war has been waged [against Iran] on the global scale," he said.

In addition, the government has managed to halt the price hikes on essential goods and services like bread, cooking oil, most meat products, and public transport. Iranians now have to rely on the government not just for cash handouts but also for goods they have normally been accustomed to, further insulating the regime from revolt.

"People are becoming more dependent on the government for everything," says Ali, the activist. "Why would they rebel against this government?"

Working against Ahmadinejad is the unemployment rate, which analysts believe may be over 20 percent -- caused in part by a 30 percent slump in domestic car production since last summer. Iran hasn't amassed a large external debt, but the government is increasingly facing problems paying back its creditors.

Najma, 29, says that the government owes the engineering company he works for 70 billion rials ($2.1 million). "The situation is first of all caused by sanctions, but the government is not a good manager either," he says over a cappuccino at a coffee shop in affluent north Tehran.

Here, even the well-off concede that sanctions are biting -- but not to the bone. Reihane Vahid, 32, a theater director, says her family can no longer travel to Europe for vacation. Instead, they make do with flying to Kish Island, a popular tourist destination in the Iranian waters of the Persian Gulf. "We are a long way from taking to the streets," she admits.

As is usual in times like these, hardship for some spells profit for others. Those with ties to the regime have stood the best chance of enriching themselves. Top officers in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) have allegedly amassed great wealth through smuggled goods, including everything from alcohol and cigarettes to flat-screen televisions. Even Ahmadinejad has accused the IRGC of profiteering. A few crafty types also find ways to make a profit independently.

"You can get poor in one day; you can get rich in one day," says a currency dealer in a small hookah cafe in the old center of the city. With one house in the rich neighborhood of Gisha and one in Canada, he manages to take advantage of the volatile currency trade by transporting foreign cash between continents.

"I don't even work. I have people for that," he says, sipping tea while sucking on a sugar cube. "It's like a game of blackjack. The dealer always wins."

BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images