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."