What prompted this remarkable show of mirth was a perfectly straightforward question: Were French people surprised by the revelations of dope-taking that have blighted the world's premier cycle race over the past two weeks? Apparently not.
"Don't be ridiculous," spluttered Mrs Bully, owner of a hairdressing salon in Salins-les-Bains, a small spa town in the foothills of the Jura mountains, on the route of yesterday's stage of the Tour de France. "Everyone knows that the competitors take drugs. They're men, after all; not machines."
Her client, Nicole Picard, agreed, and said: "We support the riders, 100 per cent. The police have treated them abominably."
On this subject, ordinary French people, not normally noted for their liberal attitudes, appear virtually unshockable. So the cyclists take a few pills and potions to help them tackle those steep ascents. So what?
The French authorities have proved less tolerant. Since performance-enhancing drugs were found in the car of the Swiss Festina team earlier this month, the judiciary has come down on the Tour like a ton of bricks. Several other teams have been investigated; suitcases searched, doctors and riders taken away for questioning.
The cyclists complain that they have been handled like criminals; frogmarched out of hotel rooms in the middle of the night, strip-searched, interrogated, left without food for hours, forced to forgo their precious post-race massage. "Many of us have been in tears," said one sportsman earlier this week.
Festina were expelled; other teams have pulled out in protest. But there have been admissions that drug-taking is routine. The scandal grows daily and threatens the very future of the race.
Yesterday morning the Dutch TVM team pulled out of the race, reducing the field to 14 teams, compared to 21 at the start. And more legal action came with the first cyclist, Italian Rodolfo Massi, placed under formal investigation, one step short of being charged. Also placed under investigation was Dr Nicolas Terrados Cepada of the Spanish team, Once.
Le Monde and other respected journals have called for this year's Tour, due to finish in Paris tomorrow, to be abandoned. "The Tour has no credibility left. It is a sordid spectacle," one newspaper said yesterday.
So there is a huge gulf between French opinion- formers and the hundreds of people who lined the route in Salins yesterday, cheering wildly. To understand it, you have to appreciate the special place the Tour de France has in the national psyche.
In a nation obsessed by sport, la Grande Boucle is the greatest spectacle of all - a symbol of national pride. An estimated 20 million peopleturn out each year to watch. Six hours of television are devoted to the event each day.
The Tour arouses passions beyond those exhibited when ecstatic crowds spilled on to the Champs Elysees in the wake of France's World Cup Final triumph last month. Hence the outrage among the French public at the way that the competitors have been treated. Every sport is riddled with drugs nowadays, people argue, and, dope or no dope, the riders perform enormous feats of endurance, covering 2,500 miles in three weeks, on often demanding terrain.
It is difficult, also, to overstate the importance to towns and villages in rural France of securing a place on the Tour's itinerary. And those that host the start and finish of the daily stages pay handsomely for the privilege.
In Salins yesterday, the sense of anticipation was
palpable as residents of the usually sleepy town awaited the arrival of the cyclists, who were to pass through on the 19th stage of the race, between La Chaux-de-Fonds, just over the Swiss border, to Autun, 150 miles west.
For three hours they waited in the baking heat: babies in pushchairs, grizzled old men waving tricolour flags. Around midday, every business in town shut. Children shrieked with excitement as cars belonging to the Tour's sponsors drove past.
Just after 1pm, a convoy of motorbikes heralded the imminent arrival of the cyclists. Suddenly they were there, a dozen or so at the head of the race, a vision of physical perfection in multicoloured Lycra. Ten minutes later, the rest of the men whizzed past, to deafening applause. So brave, so strong, sighed the spectators.
"It's an event like none other," said one middle-aged woman, wiping a speck of dust from her eye. "It's such a great honour for the town to be on the route." It is also good for the town's economy. Hotels and bars were packed yesterday.
But not quite everyone is misty-eyed about the Tour. Jose Bourgeois, a local bar owner with a ferociously bushy moustache, believes that "l'affaire Festina" has done untold damage to France's sporting reputation. "The race is spoilt this year," he said. "I don't know why they're bothering to finish it."
And in Aix-les-Bains, where cyclists staged a farcical go-slow day earlier this week in protest at their treatment by police, municipal authorities are furious. The pounds 70,000 that they paid to host a leg of the race is money down the drain, they say.
It looks as if the remaining riders will make it to Paris but it is debatable whether the Tour will be able to rid itself of the stench of scandal. Some argue that the crackdown was long overdue. "It's unpleasant but it had to happen. They need to start again from square one," said one Salins resident yesterday.
Optimists take a long-term perspective. They point out that doping has been a recurrent theme for many years. Team hotels were raided by police in search of drugs as far back as 1962.
As was clear yesterday the enthusiasm of the French public for the Tour remains undimmed. Even if cyclists are doped up to the eyeballs, they are still Gods of the Road.Reuse content