Ten things you probably didn’t know about Pétanque

If you thought Pétanque was just a bunch of Pastis-sipping elderly men idly throwing balls on a French village square then think again. This sport has drama, danger and Olympic ambitions.

Ten things you probably didn't know about Pétanque
Pétanque is more high-octane than its image suggests. Photo: Egor Mizynik on Unsplash

1. Ancient Greek origins

Pétanque features fairly regularly on lists of stereotypical french activities and plenty of French people would have you believe that they invented the game.

But the origins of Pétanque (or boules) can be traced as far back as Ancient Greece when people played games which involved tossing coins and stones.

The Ancient Romans then came up with the idea of adding a target – which in the French version of the game is called a cochonnet (piglet). As for the name Pétanque – which is also used in English – it comes from the word “la petanca” in Provençal dialect, deriving from pès tancats or “feet together”.

A man plays Pétanque in the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris. Photo: AFP

2. Not just a sport for old men

The heartland of the sport is southern France, particularly Provence, and the popular image is of elderly men playing it.

And while plenty of retired men enjoy a game of Pétanque, possibly accompanied by a glass of Pastis, statistics show that more and more women are taking part. Today around 14 percent of the sport’s 311,971 registered members in France are women and there are plenty of women who take part in the Pétanque Wold Cup (yes, that is a thing). 

According to the President of the Ligue Paca, women bring a certain “sensibility” to the sport that the male players lack. 

3. OK maybe some…

One of the best things about Pétanque is that practically anyone can play, regardless of sex or age.

Pétanque legend César Brauer known as 'César of Montelimar' won the first ever Pétanque World Cup in 1962 and 50 years later he competed in his last World Cup in 2013. He died two years later.

4. The rise of the “bouligans”

The term bouliganisme (boules hooliganism) was coined after numerous stories about rising incivility among French players.

In 2007, the newspaper Midi-Libre declared: “Petanque is no longer a convivial sport. It is being undermined by constant incivility, verbal threats and gross insults. The non-respect of sporting rules by some players is driving others away, as well as referees who feel endangered.” 

5. Dangerous sport

Pétanque may be regarded by many as a gentle pastime but it has been known to get out of hand.

In 2008 a man in the village of Adé in the Pyrenees was killed by a fellow player’s ball as he was checking how close his own was to the cochonnet. In another tragic accident – quite unrelated to the sport – a pensioner was trampled to death by a two-tonne runaway circus elephant as he played the game

6. Don’t be a Fanny

If you’ve ever played Pétanque in Provence you may have wondered what a picture of a bare-bottomed woman called “Fanny” is doing there.

She is basically the goddess of Pétanque and tradition dictates that if a team fails to score a single point they must kiss Fanny’s bottom.

So if you happen to be hopeless at the sport, don’t be surprised if your competitors exclaim: “Il est Fanny!” (he’s Fanny) or “Fanny paie à boire!” (Fanny pays for the drinks).

7. Asian fans

Pétanque may be culturally associated with France but the International Federation of Pétanque and Provençal Game estimates that the sport – which has around 10-12 million players worldwide in 160 countries – is in fact most popular in Asia.

No surprise then that Thailand currently holds second place in the Pétanque World Championships ranking. An estimated 1.5 million Chinese children apparently play the game at school.

The sport is also very popular in Asia. Photo: AFP

8. A bac in Pétanque?

As France’s tenth most popular sport it’s perhaps unsurprising that pétanque has crept its way into the French school system. A handful of high schools in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region now offer it as a sport for the Physical Education baccalauréat qualification.

9. Alcohol ban lifted

In 2007 the World Anti-Doping Agency, which fights against drugs in sport, finally responded to calls from French players of Pétanque to lift its draconian ban on alcohol for professional players.

The president of the World Boules Federation, Romolo Rizzoli, had ridiculed the inclusion of alcohol on the list of banned substances for pétanque, complaining to Libération newspaper: “You can drive a car after drinking two glasses of wine, but you can't play boules?”, according to Der Spiegel.

Boules players still have a long list of substances they are barred from taking, including cocaine, steroids, hashish and growth hormones.

10. Olympic ambitions

A gentle pastime, you say? Well, don’t say that to the World Federation of the Sport of Boules. Founded in 1985 by three international boules organisations, the federation has fought for decades to get the game recognised as an Olympic sport.

Wit the 2024 Olympic due to be held in Paris, it would have been a perfect time for this most French of traditions to finally be awarded the status that it craves. Alas, it was not to be and the Olympic Games Organising Committee declared in 2019 that Pétanque had failed in its bid to become an Olympic event.

Instead breakdancing, skateboarding, climbing and surfing will be the new sports on view in Paris in 2024.



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French rugby in turmoil as FFR boss gets suspended sentence over corruption

Lawyers for FFR President Bernard Laporte said he was going to appeal against the court's verdict

French rugby in turmoil as FFR boss gets suspended sentence over corruption

French rugby was reeling Tuesday after the president of the country’s governing body Bernard Laporte was handed a two-year suspended prison sentence on corruption charges nine months before France hosts the game’s World Cup.

Fédération Française de Rugby (FFR) president Laporte, 58, was convicted after a French court ruled he showed favouritism in awarding a shirt sponsorship contract for the national side to Mohed Altrad, the billionaire owner of Top 14 champions Montpellier. He was also banned from holding any rugby post for two years. Both are suspended pending an appeal, which Laporte’s lawyer said was imminent.

Laporte later stepped down from his role as vice-chairman of the sport’s global governing body, World Rugby, pending a review by the body’s ethics officer.

“World Rugby notes the decision by World Rugby vice-chairman Bernard Laporte to self-suspend from all positions held within its governance structures with immediate effect following his conviction by the French court in relation to domestic matters, and pending his appeal,” World Rugby said.

“While acknowledging Laporte’s self-suspension and right of appeal, given the serious nature of the verdict World Rugby’s Executive Committee has referred the matter to its independent ethics officer for review in accordance with its integrity code,” it added.

Resignation call
Laporte faces problems on the domestic front, too, with Florian Grill, who narrowly lost to him in the 2020 election for federation chief, calling for Laporte and the entire board to stand down.

“It is unheard of in rugby, this is an earthquake,” Grill told AFP. “We have never before seen a president of the federation condemned to two
years in prison, even if it suspended.

“We think the 40 members of the board of directors should draw the obvious conclusions and resign.”

French Sports Minister Amelie Oudea-Castera said the sentence was an “obstacle for Bernard Laporte to be able, as it stands, to continue his mission in good conditions” as federation president, and called for a “new democratic era to allow French rugby to rebound as quickly as possible and sufficiently healthy and solid, with a governance by the federation that will have the full confidence of the clubs”.

The court found that Laporte ensured a series of marketing decisions favourable to Altrad – who was given an 18-month suspended sentence and
€50,000 euro — in exchange for a €180,000 image licensing contract that was never actually carried out.

Altrad’s lawyer said he would study the decision before deciding on whether to appeal.

At the trial’s close in September, prosecutors said they were seeking a three-year prison sentence for Laporte, of which he should serve one behind bars, and the two others on probation.

The friendship and business links between Laporte and Altrad are at the heart of the case.

It goes back to February 2017, when they signed a deal under which Laporte agreed to appear at Altrad group conferences, and sold his image reproduction rights, in return for €180,000.

But while that sum was  paid to Laporte, prosecutors claim that he neveractually provided the services he signed up for.

Laporte did, however, make several public statements backing Altrad and, in March 2017, signed the €1.8 million deal with the businessman making his namesake firm the first-ever sponsor to appear on the French national team’s jerseys.

The Altrad name and logo still features on the shirts thanks to a follow-up deal negotiated by Laporte in 2018 and which prosecutors say bears all the hallmarks of corruption. It is also on the All Blacks’ national squads’ shirts, and New Zealand Rugby is reportedly seeking an urgent meeting with company officials following the court ruling.

Laporte, formerly a highly successful coach who guided France twice to the World Cup semi-finals (2003 and 2007), was also found guilty of favouritism
with regards to Altrad’s Montpellier Herault Rugby (MHR) club.

He was convicted for intervening with French rugby’s federal disciplinary commission to reduce a fine against the club from €70,000 to €20,000 after several telephone calls from Laporte.

While prosecutors saw this and several more incidents as proof of illicit favouritism, Laporte himself had claimed there was no “cause-effect relationship”.

On the last day of the trial in October, Laporte’s lawyer Fanny Colin accused the prosecution of “confirmation bias” by “taking into account only elements backing their original assumptions”.

The verdict comes only nine months before the Rugby World Cup kicks off in France on September 8, 2023, with matches played in nine stadiums across the country.