Petanque referees in southwest France are threatening to boycott the next French championship due to increased aggression from drunk players.
It has been forbidden to play with a blood alcohol level higher than 0.5g/l since January 2019, but referees in Gironde (Nouvelle-Aquitaine) say the rule is not being respected.
“It is a recurring problem,” Patrick Bugeat, international petanque referee and head of the Gironde referee group, told Le Figaro. “Clubs sell alcohol because it makes a profit, but they don’t protect referees in case of aggression.”
The next French championships are set to take place in March 2024. If the referees boycott the event, it could stop 6,000 petanque player members from taking part.
"We do not know if we will, but there has to be some action,” said Mr Bugeat. “There is a bit of everything in this business: temperamental people, contrarians, cantankerous people, bitter people... The day we have a death in the field because of alcohol, we'll say: ‘Something should have been done’.”
‘He went berserk’
The most recent serious incident took place on October 7. Jean-Louis Lecoq, a 60-year-old referee who is mainly retired, was standing in for a colleague at the Bruges boulodrome in Gironde, but was soon attacked after a standard game decision.
Mr Lecoq said: “[The player] went berserk, tried to grab me and threatened to kill me, several times.”
The man did not calm down, and the referee had to be escorted off the field. Mr Lecoq was later signed off work for two days due to anxiety.
“Petanque is not a violent game. The problem is the effect of alcohol,” said Mr Lecoq. “There are some people who know how to behave and others who don't. It's a pity because, for a player, it's a real pleasure. It's a shame because [the actions of] one man can bring the entire sport into disrepute.”
In Gironde, the 26 petanque referees say that alcohol-related incidents are relatively common.
“I nearly got hit in the face by a player's ball once,” said Jean-Claude Prat, who himself played petanque for 40 years before becoming a referee. “But we do our best, we try to calm people down by approaching them in an educational way.
“Either because of alcohol or drugs, or for an extra €10 on their winnings, some people will make an incredible mess,” he said. “My wife gets scared; she would like me to stop. I am thinking about it.”
Moving the sport forwards?
Mr Bugeat said that his aim is to “move the sport of petanque forwards”. And while “alcohol has always been there”, he said, “now there’s an extra factor: a society that is becoming characterised by violence”.
Mr Lecoq said: "How do you expect us to become an Olympic sport when we play in jeans and flip flops and some people get drunk while playing?
He said that asking the clubs to stop selling alcohol would “probably not be enough” to stop the issue.”
When clubs stop selling alcoholic drinks at the bar, the players go and get them from the boot of their car,” said Mr Prat.
Instead, re-education of the players and more respect for the sport was needed, said Mr Bugeat - who has yet to confirm if the department’s referees will definitively boycott the championship next year.