The answer has two parts: legal and moral.
Marie-Odile Amaury is the owner of the Tour de France, she owns Amaury Sport Organisation, the company created by the Amaury family to, ahem, organise sports. That’ll answer this blog post’s title question. But there’s more to it….
The tale is very well told in Alex Duff’s readable Le Fric book, the quick version is that the Tour de France was started by Henri Desgranges and his L’Auto newspaper over the winter of 1902-03 and he ran the race until he handed it over to Jacques Goddet in 1936. The Second World War when the event was stopped when France was under occupation. The Tour resumed after the war but only in 1947 when Goddet and his new L’Equipe newspaper got permission to revive the event. Post-war the race was still the property of the state and under the tutelage of the French Cycling Federation: L’Equipe had the right to organiser the race, it didn’t own it.
This is where Emilien Amaury comes in, the son of a road repair man, he started out as a bicycle delivery boy and ended up as a newspaper tycoon in the heyday of print. He founded the Parisien Libéré newspaper after the war and ended up doing a deal with Goddet and his L’Equipe newspaper to take a 50% stake in the Tour de France in 1956 when the pair agreed a deal with the French government to buy the race for 20 million French francs (about €450,000 in today’s money). In 1968 Amaury took over L’Equipe, acquiring the Tour de France stake to own the race outright.
Ever since the race has been an asset for the Amaury family but for many years it was a still a stunt that helped boost the circulation of their newspapers, a means to an end. When Emilien died in a horse-riding accident, his children disputed their inheritance. His son Philippe Amaury eventually acquired L’Equipe and with it, the Tour. He died in 2006 and his wife Marie-Odile took over at the help of the Amaury Groupe. Today she is the Présidente-Directrice Générale, the French term for chair and chief executive.
Aged 81, Marie-Odile Amaury cuts a relatively discreet figure, it’s rare to spot her at the Tour de France. When the Tour de France Femmes was unveiled last October in Paris she was sat discreetly in the crowd, although amid the senior mayors and senators present.
Her son 45 year old Jean-Etienne has been groomed for the role of taking over at ASO for years, an MBA from Stanford University, working for Bloomberg in London and now in charge at ASO.
ASO itself owns the Tour but also a large portfolio of bike races and other events like the Paris-Dakar rally and Paris-Marathon. Today the Tour de France is the Amaury family’s prime asset, once a gimmick to boost newspaper sales, now a business in its own right. The family Le Parisien to luxury goods company LVMH in 2015.
But there’s another owner of the Tour de France as well: the French public and all the roadside fans, perhaps you too. The race is a socio-cultural institution in France as well as a sports franchise. It’s anchored in French society that in a way has helped it ride out doping scandals and pandemics. Grandparents taking grandchildren to see the Tour de France is a summer ritual for millions.
This romantic aspect also has a practical side, the Tour might owned by a private company but it operates in the public sphere and has to accommodate local customs and rules. The roads belong to the state, départments and local communes. The police close the roads and don’t charge market rates. A large share of the Tour’s income comes from the French state, the TV rights money is from France Télévisions – a government decree states the race must be free-to-air – and hosting fees are paid by local towns and regions. The race is free for spectators and remains a populaire event (the word in French evokes something for the people rather than popularity). “Reforming” ideas from outsiders like closing roads to sell ticket access would upset way more people than any revenue would be worth. The French government is keenly aware of the soft power projection, all those images of France in the glory of summer that are sent around the world. There’s a group of parliamentarians in the French Sénat, parliament’s upper chamber, that looks on like proud uncles at the race. The influence of politicians works the other way too, they helped push the Tour away from having female-only podium hosts, they’re pulling the Tour in a green direction to lower vehicle emissions and using the race to promote cycling as transport. More recently many mayors are a support behind the launch of the Tour de France Femmes, the Tour de France has been able to count on politicians and others talking about gender equality and hold them to their word to ensure they back the new race.
Legally the Amaury family own the race and they certainly get to bank the profits made by the race (latest accounts for 2020 show ASO had sales of €195 million and a profit of €59 million and a portion of this is paid to the family in dividends). If that’s the ownership settled, there’s a kind of oversight from government and population alike. The Tour benefits from the benign support of the French state, operating in the public realm and conducts itself accordingly, it’s not trying to sweat every last Euro. There have been attempts to buy the race in the past but it wasn’t for sale, but if it ever was the government would surely have a role in vetting any bidders, or even placing into the “right” hands.