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Make sense of... French boules games

Playing boules has a long history in France, probably even going back to the Romans and, contrary to its image, it is not limited to the south.

The game of boules – especially its most famous form, pétanque – has a typically French image, but expats can expect to be made to feel at home if they want to take part, says Clément Meneghin of the national federation FFPJP.

Mr Meneghin said one of the main reasons people join pétanque clubs is their friendliness.

“As it’s a game that was born in France, the French are always very happy to see people of other nationalities taking an interest,” he said.

“Another advantage is that it suits all ages – you can start when you’re five or six and still be playing at 80 if you’re in good health.

“It’s skilful, but doesn’t require huge physical effort, though if you’re playing competitively you need stamina, because competitions can last a long time.

“You also need calm, patience and concentration. Nervous people aren’t good at pétanque.”

He added: “A licence for club membership is on average €30-50/year so we’re cheaper than other sports.”

Surprisingly, pétanque is also the fourth most televised sport in France and lobbying is under way to have it included in the Olympic Games in Paris in 2024 (a decision is expected to be made by 2020).

The Fédération Française de Pétanque et Jeu Provençal (FFPJP) represents most of the French pétanque clubs (apart from, for example, groups of friends who play on a casual basis) and it counts some 6,000 clubs in total and 300,000 licence-holding members. It is the 8th biggest sport in France in numbers of licensed participants.

A licence is required for club membership and includes insurance and the right to take part in competitions.

Contrary to the image that pétanque is practised only in the south of France, there are clubs in every department, even if some departments, such as the Bouches-du-Rhône, have a lot more than others.

‘ Boule’ refers to the ball, not a specific game and boules games date back millennia. In particular, the Ro­mans, had wooden boules and aimed at a pebble much as players aim at a little ball today.

However the specific game of pétanque was invented in 1907 in La Ciotat, Bouches-du-Rhône, when Jules ‘Le Noir’, who suffered from rheumatism was allowed to throw his boules with his feet still (les pieds tanqués in the local dialect) instead of using a run-up was usual in le jeu provençal which is still an alternative at some clubs.

Mr Meneghin said: “In the south of France, where pétanque was born, you still see squares in the middle of villages where you can play, because the weather’s good and you can play all year round. However in the northern half of France people use grounds loaned from the mairie, sports stadiums or covered buildings called boulodromes.”

If you do not know your local club, the best way to find one is to ask your mairie.

To get started, you just need your own boules, which come in sets of three called une triplette. The most popular brand is Obut, founded by a lock maker and a mechanic; they have made steel boules in the Loire department since 1955.

For competitions they must be boules de compétition that are homologuées (made to official specifications) and you will also have to buy the club kit (e.g. a sports shirt in club colours).

Choice of boules comes down to preference as to size and weight and whether they are smooth or scored (striées). Smooth ones roll faster and feel more ‘slippery’ in the hand.

Most adults learn by playing – some clubs have écoles de pétanque, often aimed at children.

Clubs typically meet once a week for a training session, though some players may meet to play more regularly, depending on availability of facilities. Pétanque is played in teams of two or three (or individually) but there is no need to be part of a team – once everyone has arrived for a session they will team people up there and then.

Once you have a licence you may enter competitions at all levels including departmental and national.

This year, for the seventh year running the FFPJP is running Le Pétanque Tour starting in June, a national roadshow promoting the sport, including demonstrations from world champions and workshops for young people (see for more information on this).

While pétanque is the most popular boules sport in France, it is far from the only one.

Along with le jeu provençal, which is played in the same clubs and with the same boules, there is also boules lyonnaises (also called sport-boules), which originates in the Lyon area and is played with larger boules.

Some areas also have local varieties, such as square boules in Cagnes-sur-Mer in the Alpes-Maritimes, la boule de sable du Pays Nantais, played on sand, or la boule plombée du Pays de Morlaix, played with two-kilo resin boules with lead cylinders embedded in them.


Some boules vocabulary:

Le cochonnet – the small ball which players try to throw their boules close to

La partie – a game of boules, divided into a number of mènes (rounds). It ends when one team reaches 13 points

Pointer – to throw a boule trying to get it as close to the cochonnet as possible

Tirer – to ‘shoot’ your boule at an opponent’s one to knock it out of the way. The perfect shot, knocking out another well-positioned boule and taking its place precisely, is called un carreau

Fanny faire Fanny means to lose 13 to 0. Traditionally, the team which lost so badly has to kiss the posterior of a picture or model of a bare-bottomed woman called Fanny, and often buy a round of drinks.

The image here was drawn by artist Perry Taylor. For more of his work see

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