Pétanque – the game of Boules

It seems that every French town or small village has its own terrain de Pétanque. But if it doesn’t, you’ll surely find a group of enthusiasts playing this game in a park or square.

Taken in its simplest form Pétanque, or Boules as it is also called, is a very easy game to play: after deciding who will play first (normally decided by a flip of a coin) a circle or line is drawn. Standing either in the circle or behind the line, the first player throws a small wooden ball le cochonnet (the Jack in English) and waits until it has landed and stopped rolling. He then throws one of his pétanque balls placing it as close as possible next to the tiny cochonnet.

DSC_4225 copyThe next player then stands in the circle or behind the line and throws his pétanque ball – displacing his opponent’s ball in the process if need be. The first player then throws his second pétanque ball to land next to the chochonnet – and the second player plays his second ball. At the end of that round the winner is the one nearest the cochonnet – and earns a point. He earns two points if his two balls are closest.

The overall winner is the one who reaches 13 points first (meaning the game contains thirteen rounds). The loser normally pays the next round of drinks which is why many pétanque terrains are found next to the local bistrot…

You may think it sounds boring but I can assure you pétanque is very competitive and once you’ve tried it you will be smitten.

History of the game of Boules
The game of “boules” dates back to the dawn of civilization as it seems that the first set of “boules” was discovered in Asia Minor (5,000 to 6,000 AC). The Egyptians left behind a great deal of evidence of their love for games, namely in their religious rites. Marbles and skittles were part of their heritage; a set of skittles made of marble and alabaster and stone marbles were discovered on archaeological sites (3,500 AC).

The Greeks made games into a real institution. In addition to the famous “discobolus”, marbles, skittles and guoits became very popular (in the game of “enkotylé), an upright stone is knocked down using boules. The Romans inherited Greek games. The boule (“bulla”) was first made of stone, then box (buxus) which was to be known as “bocco” in Provençal dialect. Gallic ancestors copied the Roman heritage and spheres of different weights and diameters were used. The term “boule” came about later, in the 13th century.

Boules continued to be played during the French Revolution and during the French Empire. Elsewhere, variant forms of this game were being played: the British game of lawn Bowls and the Italian game of ‘Bocce’. From the second half of the 19th century, regional forms of games came to surface: ‘La Rafle’, and ‘La Boule Lyonnaise’ to mention a couple. Rules were published, federations created and competitions started.

The first steel ball was made in 1927 at Saint-Bonnet le Château, a small village located west of St Etienne, in the department of the Loire, Rhône-Alpes region of France. Jean Blanc and Louis Tarchier, manufacturers in the village, registered the manufacturing principle for playing boules at the court of Montbrison (1929).

OBUTSt. Bonnet le Château is the home of the world’s two major boules manufacturers, La Boule OBUT and JB Pétanque, as well as the International Pétanque Museum. In 1955, Frédéric Bayet, a lock manufacturer in St-Bonnet le Château, created the “OBUT” trademark. The fully-automatic production machines were designed by Antoine Depuy, a talented mechanic.

In 1958 the founders of the trademark called upon the Sauvignet family to expand the production which was to take on a whole new dimension. In 1981, Robert Souvignet became Chairman and Managing Director of the “OBUT” company. Today his son Pierre directs the company. OBUT is still the N° 1 manufacturer, holding 80% of the market. With a staff of just 130 salaried workers they manufacture 4,200,000 pétanque boules a year; an incredible figure.

Boules Lyonnaise
The “Lyonnaise” became a recognized sport in 1850 with the creation of the first official club “Le Clos Jouve”. 1906 saw the foundation of the Fédération Lyonnaise and became called the National Bowls Federation in 1933 which in turn became called the French Federation in 1942.

This game is played with larger boules and over a longer distance. Although the principle is similar as pétanque with pointers and shooters the rules are stricter. For example: when shooting you must nominate the target boule and land within 50cm for the shot to be valid.

The Game Longue
This game can be played on any surface, with the exception of concrete, asphalt or tiles. The terrain must be at least 25 meters long and the jack thrown at a distance between 15 to 21 meters away from the players. Players take a running start of three steps before throwing the boule. This “run-up” allows the shooter to give the ball the momentum and force needed to reach the opponent’s boule and knock it away.

The Birth of Pétanque
DSCN3918It is in Provence on the island of La Ciotat, located on the French Riviera Coast between Marseilles and Toulon, where the game of boules was improved upon and became known as Pétanque. One summer’s afternoon in 1907, a game of boules was underway at the Béraud boules club. A free-style game (current Provençal game) was currently in play and surrounded by a great many onlookers keenly following events.

In the front row are a few veteran players seated on chairs hired out from Ernest Pitiot the terrain manager. These “ring-side” veterans pass comments, criticise, hand out advice, keep score or end up having heated arguments in the middle of the boules game. One can only presume that on that particular summer’s day, Pitiot had had enough of arguments and interrupted games for he decides to take all the chairs away. All except one; the one reserved for his friend Jules Lenoir who was severely crippled by rheumatism.

As Jules Lenoir sits there, a boule rolls towards him. He cannot resist the temptation and joins in the game by throwing a boule too. Pitiot notices the efforts of his friend and comes up with the idea that Lenoir joins the game by putting his seat in the middle of the circle while the other players stand still with their feet together inside it. Pitiot also suggests changing the original circle to 50cm in diameter and the boule thrown between 5 and 9 meters instead.

In Provençal dialect feet together and stuck to the ground is called ped tanca or pieds tanqués in French. This new game, called jeu de boules pieds tanqués, rapidly became a favourite by all the locals and, just as rapidly, began to be pronounced pétanque. Such was the success of the game that in 1910 Ernest Petiot decided to organize the very first pétanque competition; held on the original terrain where the game was invented.

The Fédération Française Pétanque et Jeu Provençal
Success and interest for the new game grew not only in Provence but further afield too. So it was that in 1927, the official Pétanque rules were drawn up. A few years later, in the 16 January 1945, the committees of Basse-Alpes, Bouches du Rhône, Gard, Var and Vaucluse created the Fédération Française Pétanque et Jeu Provençal (FFPJP).

After the end of Second World War, an international tournament was set up in 1957 in Spa (Belgian Ardennes) with teams from six countries: Belgium, France, Monaco, Morocco, Switzerland and Tunisia. Once the tournament over the participants decided to create a worldwide body. In 1958, and now with the inclusion of Spain, the FIPJP was founded.

From those early days in 1910, pétanque continues to acquire enthusiasts. Many French villages have a special stadium for the game called a Boulodrome, most often dedicated to pétanque. In France alone there are over 460,000 official players in 7,600 clubs and 21 regional leagues and is presently being considered as an Olympic discipline.

Worldwide, the Federation has 52 member countries and is now the fourth most important Federation in France (after Football, Tennis and Ski). The French government also recently declared pétanque a “high-level discipline”. This now gives its national federation access to government support and funds to build centres of excellence. Promising young players will be given money to help them to train and study at the same time.

And for those of you still doubting the seriousness of this game, the World Pétanque Tournament, organised by local newspaper La Marseillaise, is held in Marseilles every year in July and attracts around 4,000 teams, 10,000 players and over 200,000 spectators from 20 countries around the world.

Christian Fazzino, considered to be one of the four greatest pétanque players, entered the Guinness Book of Records a few years ago with 992 direct hits from 1,000 shots in the space of an hour.

Pétanque: The Game
Pétanque is played on a flat hard surface 3 to 4 meters wide and about 12 meters long. At the start of the game, a circle is drawn on the ground where each player stands to throw his boule from. The game begins when the cochonnet is thrown.

A proper cochonnet is turned from beech wood and between 2.5 cm and 3.5 cm in diameter. It is generally painted red but can really be of any colour, is thrown between 6 to 10 meters, and must also be visible from the circle. Interestingly, the throwing of the jack by one member of the team does not imply that he or she must play the first boule. The team whose boule is closest to the cochonnet is said to be “holding”. Pétanque can be played anywhere; most players actually prefer an uneven terrain as it makes it more challenging and adds to the difficulty.

Pointers & Shooters
Pointers are allowed only one step outside the circle before throwing their boule. To point means to close in on the opponent’s boule with precision and place your own boule in a tactical position. This is commonly achieved by lobbing the boule. After hitting the ground, it should roll (hopefully) towards the cochonnet and come to a stop as close as possible to it.

Shooters on the other hand aim directly at an opponent’s boule. When properly hit, the arriving boule will actually replace the other one. It’s a spectacular sight and known as a “carreau”, the perfect shot. In triplettes (teams of 3 players) one will generally have an all-round player who is good in both pointing and shooting. You can play one-on-one (called “tête-à-tête”), or in teams of two (“doublettes”) or three (“triplettes”). In triplettes, each player has two boules. In doublettes and tête-à-tête, each player has three boules.

Manufacturing la Boule de Pétanque
The making of a pétanque boule is an extraordinary process. It involves know-how, techniques and quite sophisticated and expensive equipment. To start with, pieces of steel (small cylinders) called “lopins” are cut from long cylindrical bars. Heated to over 1000°C, the lopins are afterwards moulded into discs then into perfectly regular shells under 800 ton presses. The two shells are then soldred together in order to form a ball. This technique is used by all the manufacturers. VMS Plot (MS Pétanque) adds a stamp of precision and internal anti-bounce features.

After the all-important soldering phase (which determines sturdiness), the rough shape is heated to 850°C and slowly cooled to allow the exterior shaping to the determined diameter and weight, and also to add any lines or markings. The dipping and the “revenu” harden to steel and adjusts its toughness. The finishing touches of polishing and adding anti-corrosive determine the quality of the final product and the pleasure in handling it. The “normal” balls goes through many different specialised, complex and ultra-modern machines, and undergoes numerous tests and trials.

Pointers choose a middle-sized weighted boule (72 to 73mm in diametre, and 710 to 740 gr in weight) with one or several marking lines. Shooters prefer a completely smooth boule slightly larger in diameter (76 to 78mm) and lighter in weight (680 to 710 gr). There is also an importance in the type of metal a boule is made from: Steel or Carbon. Carbon turns mat after a while and is easier to hold in the hand.

You can buy Pétanque boules from any good sports shop (Decathlon). These are made from steel and perfect for anyone who plays the game as a hobby, outside of official tournaments or who wants to get a feel for the game before going for the professional type. A normal set of boules will cost you around €11. They are more economical simply because they do not require the precise size and weight tolerances of competition boules.

But if after a few rounds of pétanque you find yourself smitten by the game, buying a set of competition boules will cost you anything from €200 and over. There are seven recognised French manufacturers: La Boule Obut, Boules JB Idéale, Boules Vannucci-Bucaro, Boules Elte, La Boule Noire, La Boule Bleue and Intégrale.

Visit to Maison de la Pétanque
If you are interested in pétanque or have some spare time when you are over here on holiday, then why not visit la Maison de la Pétanque in Vallauris.

It’s bright, well designed and the English translations excellent. You’ll find an éco-museum (€3 admission that is waived if you purchase pétanque boules) showing you how boules are manufactured, a step-by-step guide to the historic of boules along with photos and memorabilia. They also sell normal and competition boules (for children and adults), the range of OBUT sports gear, and other pétanque oriented mementoes.

And if you fancy seeing how good you are at playing pétanque, there is also an indoor bowling alley where you can test yourself. While we were there we came across two motorcycle Gendarmes testing their skills.

Address Book

Musée international pétanque et boules
Boulevard des Chauchères
42380 St-Bonnet-le-Château
Tel: 04 77 50 15 33 or 04 77 50 16 23
Fax: 04 77 50 04 25
Email: musee@petanque.com

The museum is open to the public every day between 14.30 and 17.30 from 1st April to 31st October and between 15.00 and 18.00 at Weekends and Bank Holidays.

La Boule Bleue
Montée de Saint-Menet
Z.I. La Valentine
Marseille (XI district)
Tel: 04 91 43 27 20

Maison de la Pétanque
1193, Chemin de Saint-Bernard
06220 Vallauris
Tel: 04 93 64 11 36
Fax: 04 93 64 38 41

Summer opening hours: 1 April-30 Sept Mon-Sat: 09h00 – 12h00 & 14h00 – 18h30
Winter opening hours: 1 Oct-31 March Mon-Fri 09h00 -12h00 & 14h00 – 18h30

Closed public holidays and November