Bowled Over: One of France’s Favourite Sports

Under the plane trees on the outskirts of a southern French village, an ancient tradition is taking place. A knot of men is gathered, fortified by glasses of Pastis. The sun dipping behind the trees makes zebra patterns on the dusty patch of earth. The “chock” of metal striking metal alternates with voices raised in dispute. What are they doing? Playing France’s 10th most popular sport: boules or pétanque. This has become one of the classic symbols of French culture, along with the beret, the baguette and the bouteille de vin.

Origins

The game of boules originated in Ancient Greece. The Romans made it their own and introduced it to Gaul. From there, it developed into la Boule Lyonnaise, from which variants arose, including pétanque, one of the most popular forms of boules.

Posters advertising summer fêtes down here frequently list un concours de pétanque among the attractions. These competitions are hotly contested.

Pétanque does seem to be the preserve of men, although I understand that more women are playing it at a competitive level today.

Recondite rules

The two varieties of the game have much in common. Both involve throwing metal balls at a smaller wooden ball (the but or cochonnet). Whoever gets closest wins. Part of the skill of the game is in knocking your opponent’s boule out of the way while yours remains closer to the cochonnet. And, of course, fierce arguments rage about whose boule is closer, requiring arbitration with a tape measure.

But there are significant differences, too:

  • In la Boule Lyonnaise, the players run before throwing the ball. In pétanque they throw from within a circle marked out in the dust. I’ve never actually seen the Lyonnais version. Around here, they throw from standing. Each player has their trademark stance: crouching or standing upright, throwing the boule upwards with a flick of the wrist or underarm.
  • La boule lyonnaise is made of bronze and is bigger and heavier than the boule de pétanque, which is usually made of steel. The cochonnet is bigger, too.
  • La Boule Lyonnaise takes place on a strictly demarcated court, or boulodrome. Pétanque courts are smaller and can be on any kind of terrain, even a bit bumpy, which tests the players’ skills in using the lie of the land to their advantage.
  • Pétanque has simpler rules than la Boule Lyonnaise and each game (or partie) is played for 13 points as opposed to 11 or 18. Pétanque teams can be one, two or three people; they can be up to four in la Boule Lyonnaise.  

I’ve never had the nerve to take a photo of people playing pétanque. It strikes me as too intrusive, so the one below is from Wikimedia: a pétanque game in Cannes.

Boules in books

The game has, naturally, been immortalised in French literature, especially those set in Provence. Marcel Pagnol writes about a game of boules in Fanny where the match holds up a tram. In his Souvenirs d’Enfance, a semi-fictional account of his childhood, his father Joseph, his uncle Jules and the local poacher, Mond des Parpaillouns, must uphold the honour of their Provençal village against a team from another village.

Kissing Fanny

In Provence, but also elsewhere, the game is sometimes accompanied by the picture of a woman with a bare posterior. This is Fanny, the Muse of the game. By tradition, if the losing team scores no points, they must “faire la bise à Fanny”, i.e. kiss Fanny’s bottom.

This custom is said to have originated in the late 19th century in Lyon, where a young, rather simple-minded, woman showed her rear to the losers in return for a coin. But the notion of suffering ritual public humiliation in that way probably existed long before that.

Have you ever played boules and, if so – I have to ask the question – have you ever fait la bise à Fanny?

You might also like:

What symbolises France?

Favourite French Films: Marcel Pagnol’s La Gloire de Mon Père and Le Château de Ma Mère

Blithe Spirits: Quirky French Apéritifs

Copyright © Life on La Lune 2019. All rights reserved.

About nessafrance

We moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I'm fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs. I also write historical novels and short stories.
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4 Responses to Bowled Over: One of France’s Favourite Sports

  1. Thanks for that post – very interesting!! Like you, I’ve never really had the nerve to photograph the players…

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      Until I started it, I didn’t know there was a difference between pétanque and la Boule Lyonnaise. I almost photographed some players on Corsica once, but that would probably have been an even worse faux pas than doing it on the French mainland!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. gillianbrown12015 says:

    The pictures you conjure up are very authentic, Vanessa, though in my village there seems to be less pastis than I once remember. Perhaps those who play (all men) now tend to be older and conscious of their health. I’ve never heard about ‘faire la bise à Fanny’. That made me laugh! Maybe I should procure a picture of Fanny’s bottom somewhere and stick it up, under cover of night, by the boules pitch and see what happens…

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      Yes, I think the pastis tends to come afterwards these days. They are all men around here, too. I can’t now remember where I heard about “faire la bise à Fanny”, but it might have been in Pagnol. It’s still done, too.

      Liked by 1 person

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