Favorite French Pastime
Has Colourful History
It is more French, perhaps, than the baguette or de Gaulle: such a fixed feature of the landscape as to be nearly invisible to native eyes. But occupying nearly every dusty clearing in Paris and province is an array of gleaming silver balls and an assortment of characters engrossed in what to the unknowing passerby looks about us exciting as croquet. So just what is this favorite of French pastimes all about?
The game is pétanque, or boules, of course, and like most things French it, too, has a colourful history. To begin with, a pétanque partie can take a variety of forms, players can go single, ("tête-à-tête"), or compete in doubles, ("doublette") or triples, ("triplette"). There is the boules Lyonnaise form, played with a bigger ball: the jeu provençal; a British version battled on grass and a Spanish one waged on marble tiles. But throughout France, it’s pétanque, a descendant of the jeu provençal, that is king.
Born in its present form in 1910 in the small Mediterranean fishing port of La Ciotat (Provence), pétanque traces its origins to the Greeks who, on advice of their doctors, took up "spherique" tossing stone balls for improved strength, flexibility and - the Greeks’ uppermost concern - the regular exercise of though and calculation.
The Romans amused themselves with iron-covered wooden balls, and it was in their colosseums that the game became a spectator sport. Writings from the Middle Ages include tales of bouliers, although King Charles V was less celebratory of the practice, issuing a royal ordinance in 1369 which subjected players to severe reprimand, their time being better appreciated in defence of the crown.
As with most cultural institutions, pétanque underwent a resurgence during the Renaissance, but the game was harshly criticised as public debauchery by jealous promoters of other, less popular games. After a short-lived revival, pétanque was banned a second time in 1629. But honorable defenders, the clergy, soon came to the rescue and the game was again legal, though relegated to the privacy of homes and monasteries.
During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, pétanque was fully integrated into the daily ritual, evolving into more of a competitive sport than a simple diversion. As its popularity spread throughout Europe, artists immortalised the game; Goya and Brueghel, among others, painted scenes of this new social phenomenon.
Today the game is organised much the way any modern sport is. Hundreds of thousands of players are licensed by the Fédération Française de Pétanque et jeu Provençal, and leagues are widespread, extending to French departments and territories abroad. Lexiques, or specialised pétanque dictionaries, are sold to explain the odd, often incomprehensible jargon which unites players in fraternal rapport.
Across the country, robust paysans and Gitane-smoking urban youth alike toil to perfect a winning point or tir. The object of pétanque is to place your boule closest to the cochonnet (piglet) , or small wooden ball thrown to begin a partie (game). But it isn’t that easy. Before ambling to circle’s edge, there are a few basics you ought to know:
1 - A pétanque partie consists of two phases, the point and the tir. Both require a certain finesse - no stiff-armed throwing! (Players claim to caress the boule while sending it off.)
2 - To begin, a small, wooden ball is tossed onto the field, becoming the goal to attain or to prevent the opposition from attaining.
3 - The point: Carefully examine the terrain before you, as experts can use a nearly invisible slant in the soil to their advantage. Squatting or standing, either roll or archingly toss the boule toward the cochonnet or bouchon.
4 - The tir: The object is to eliminate the boules of the adversary. Ready, aim... but DON’T roll the ball!
5 - At the end of each partie, the player or team with the boule nearest the cochonnet is awarded a point. Should the same team also possess the next boule, another point is won. The first to reach 13 points is the victor.
Rebecca Chastenet de Géry is a free-lance writer living in Paris.