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 Mme 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."
The extraordinary thing is that these views are echoed around the town. 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; their suitcases searched, their doctors and riders taken away for questioning.
The cyclists complain that they have been handled like hardened criminals; frogmarched out of their hotel rooms in the middle of the night, strip- searched, interrogated, left without food for hours on end, forced to forgo their precious post-race massage. "Many of us have been in tears," said one sportsman earlier this week.
Festina was expelled; other teams have pulled out in protest. There have been brazen admissions, though, that drug-taking is routine. The scandal grows daily and threatens the very future of the race.
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 as the peloton hurtled past. 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. It is a symbol of national pride; an integral part of the country's heritage. An estimated 20 million people - a third of the population - turn out each year to watch their sporting heroes. 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. Those that host the start and finish of the daily stages pay handsomely for the privilege. Local politicians get re-elected for persuading the organisers to divert the race through their region.
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, dogs barking in harmony with the honking cars. They congregated in the square, the Place de la Resistance, set up deckchairs on the pavement outside the honey-coloured post office, hung out of windows overlooking the bunting-festooned main street.
Around midday, every business in town put up its shutters. Children shrieked with excitement as cars belonging to the Tour's sponsors drove past and free gifts - coffee, videos, suntan lotion - were tossed out of the windows. Blaring music played over loudspeakers added to the festive atmosphere.
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 multi-coloured Lycra. Ten minutes later, the rest of the men whizzed past, to deafening applause. So brave, so strong, sighed the spectators.
"The Tour is the Tour. 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. People come from miles around to watch the race. According to the information office in Salins, they often stay on to visit local attractions: the ancient salt works, the medieval churches, the vineyards that produce the region's distinctive yellow wines.
But not quite everyone is misty eyed about the Tour. Jose Bourgeois, a local bar owner with piercing blue eyes and 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. "They have cheated and they have lied. I don't know why they're bothering to finish it."
And in Aix-les-Bains, where cyclists cruised across the finish line earlier this week after staging a farcical go-slow day in protest at their treatment by police, municipal authorities are furious. The pounds 70,000 that they paid in order to host a leg of the race is money down the drain, they say.
Despite everything, 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 clean up the sport and 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.
In 1967, Tommy Simpson collapsed and died on Mont Ventoux; his use of amphetamines was largely held to blame.
And, as was clear in Salins yesterday, the enthusiasm of an indulgent French public for the Tour remains undimmed. If cyclists are doped up to the eyeballs, as far as the spectators are concerned, they are still Gods of the Road.Reuse content