What to do in France after the sun sets 10 July 2016

As the day draws to a close, millions of French all around the country head over to the village square, Boules loosely in hand, and a measuring tape in the back pocket.
sanThe clang of the metal balls hitting off each other, the little thuds as they drop on the fine dry sand, passionate profanities when a ball misses its target ‘Merde! Putain! Connard!’
Emotions can run high on the playing field.

The tradition of meeting up on these lazy balmy little patches of earth underneath the plane trees dates back millennia. It is fed by the desire for company and for chewing the fat together whilst enjoying a glass of ice-cold Pastis.
But the French don’t wear their hearts on their sleeves, so conversation largely concerns circles in the sand, wrongly drawn starting lines, or skillfully thrown balls.
If you know how to listen however, you will understand the subtext of these conversations: life, death and love.



The ancient Romans and the even more ancient Greeks never shied away from a game of Petanque. The game’s popularity remained unchallenged until the Middle Ages when grumpy king Phillip the Tall from one day to the next decided to ban the game. Defying this ban was subject to severe penalties including the Breaking Wheel, drawing and quartering and the forced consumption of inferior wine.
This merciless king rather saw his people apply themselves to the defense of the country, something that generally cannot be efficiently done by throwing balls, so he issued a national Petanque embargo and ordered his subjects to train themselves in archery, sword fighting and the art of pouring boiling tar.


But the unruly French did not give a Merde about this royal decree and that is how petanque continues to this day to be the most popular game of France.

There is even a biannual world championship with no less than 48 countries participating. The last one took place in 2014 in Marseille and was won by (comme c’est curieux, et quelle coincidence)… France.
But all being well the 2016 championships will be held in Tahiti, so perhaps the other 47 countries are in with a small chance of winning.

The rules of the game

Holidaying in France, a game of Petanque is an excellent way to make friends with the Gauls. Keep in mind that it’s not about winning or even about the game itself but about the whole atmosphere surrounding it.
What follows is a basic outline of the rules.
Try and get your head around them now so you don’t have to concentrate on that during the game and can instead focus on building warm relationships with the French.
That last point might seem a sheer impossibility but with a dash of knowledge of petanqeu and a generous measure of Joie de Vivre, you’ll make it far.

Allez on y va!

Petanque can be played individually or in teams, which is much more fun.
A team can consist of two players (a Doublette) or three (a Triplette). If your team contains three players, every player has two boules, in case of two players each has three balls.
The teams flip a coin to see who starts. The starting team draws a circle in the ground between 30cm & 50cm diameter, then throws the target ball, or But, out to a distance of between 6 to 10 meters (19.7 to 32.8 ft).
The starting team then throws their first boule, trying to get as close as possible to the but. Naturally you need to keep both feet within the circle and cannot move from your spot before your boule has hit the ground.

Then the second team’s player stands in the circle, and tries to get their boule closer to the target than the opposing team. They can try to do this by rolling their boule; lobbing it; or even shooting at the opposing team’s boule moving it away (Tirer).

If the second team does get a boule closer than any of its opponents, it’s called “holding point” – and then the opposing team has to attempt to throw a boule closer.

The team which does not have the closest boule (to the but) keeps throwing boules until either they get closest, or they run out of boules to throw.

Teams continue to play until a team reaches 13 points. The team which has scored, starts the new round (le Mene), drawing a circle around the position of the jack and using that as the new throwing circle.


Can you only drink pastis when playing petanque? Of course not; dare to break the rules! Don’t be afraid to slurp a little glass of Rosé while throwing those balls. Tell them I said it was ok.

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