The Interesting Story of Petanque

Birth of Petanque
Why Play Petanque
How to Play Petanque
What's Needed to Play Petanque
Official International Rules for Petanque (separate window)
Who is Fanny and when is it appropriate to kiss her bottom?

Introduction to Pétanque (pronounced peh-tonk)

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 thought 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.

The Birth of Pétanque


If the jeu de boules (game of bowls) dates back to the times of the Pharaohs, the game of pétanque is only 90 years old. The anecdote which follows has had its authenticity confirmed; this is to let you know the circumstances which contributed to its creation in 1907.

At La Ciotat in the south of France, an important shipping port, players of la longue (bocce), a provincial game of the area, used to meet on a ground in the vicinity of the town to play their favourite game. Jules Le Noir, a former champion of la longue (bocce), who suffered from chronic rheumatism, was the only player to be allowed to sit on a chair to watch the game when he was not playing.One Sunday, the game took too long to finish. Jules Le Noir, sitting with a few boules in his hand, was pointing and shooting at a distance of two to three metres.

"What are you doing? "Ernest Pitiot (one of the players) asked.
"I am just killing time."
"It looks fun. What about drawing a circle? We will set a limit of three metres and play within the circle."
"Does this suit you?"
"Let's try", Jules said.

Providing Jules Le Noir didn't have to balance on one leg to throw the boule or move three steps forward to aim, he retained the excellent skills he always had. The match between Pitiot and Le Noir attracted a lot of people, amongst them Father Aubrey, a champion of la longue (bocce), who decided to try this new pastime.

Over the next few months, this new game was played, with the rules constantly changing, till one day Ernest Pitiot's brother organised a competition in 1910. Eight teams, of two players each, took part. The success of that first competition was so great that other competitions took place with more and more players. LA PÉTANQUE WAS BORN!

The game of pétanque was promoted from town to town very rapidly by the travellers and fishermen of the region. You know the rest. A plaque commemorating the creation of this game is on a wall surrounding the ground and is dated 1910. The ground has actually been renamed the Ground of Pieds Tanqués (joined feet). Today the game is organised much the way any modern sport is.

What makes Petanque attractive?


How to Play Pétanque


Although pétanque at tournament level is normally played on a flat, specially-prepared surface, the tradition of the game allows a wide variety of surfaces to be pressed into service. Walkways in public parks are often very suitable, as are many school playgrounds and other hard-packed dirt areas.The game can be played (albeit less effectively) on grass lawns or even on ashphalt with a light dusting of sand. Just about the only surface that is definitley not suitable is a sandy beach, however -- special light plastic "beach pétanque" balls can be obtained to make beach play possible.

The game is played between two competing teams. The size of each team can vary from one (mano a mano style) to three. Thus any group of people numbering between two and perhaps six can enjoy a game. The most usual team make-ups are two against two (doublettes), and three against three (triplettes). In doublettes each player plays three boules, and in triplettes two; so the total number of boules in the game is almost always twelve.

So, you've selected your location, got some friends together with some regulation boules and hopefully a regulation cochonnet. What now? Well, you need one final item of equipment -- a coin to toss to see which team goes first.

A player of the team winning the toss selects a starting place and scratches a circle in the ground officially 35 to 50 centimeters diameter. They then toss the cochonnet a distance of from six to ten meters in any direction; however, it is technically invalid if it ends up less than half a meter from any wall, tree or other obstacle. The game proper starts when a player of the first team, standing with both feet in the circle, throws a boule and attempts to place it as near as possible to the cochonnet, preferably between him and the cochonnet. There is no restriction on how the boule is thrown with the exception that both feet must remain in the circle until the boule has touched the ground.

Typically the boule is thrown underarm with the palm facing backwards. This method is considered to provide more accuracy and imparts necessary backspin to stop the heavy boule from rolling too far after the first bounce. This method of throw is most suited to accurate positioning of or pointing the boule. To drive or shoot the opponents' boule out of the game usually involves a throw with a lower trajectory in some cases rolling the boule completely along the ground is an equally valid legal throw. The second team must then play until at least one of its boules is closer to the cochonnet than the first team's boule. This can be accomplished either by more accurate placing of a boule, or by violently shooting the adversary boule out of the game by impact. Assuming the second team achieves this before running out of boules, the first team then plays until successful or out of boules, and so on alternately until all the boules of both teams have been played.

If the cochonnet is displaced, the game continues unless the cochonnet either goes outside an agreed perimeter, or cannot be seen from the circle. In thatcase the round is annulled and re-started; however, if the cochonnet is knocked away when one team has thrown all its boules and the other team still has boules in hand, the team with the boules earns one point for each one that it has not played.

When both teams have thrown all their boules, the round is complete and the points are determined. The winning team receives one point for each boule closer than any boule of the opposing team (Thus the maximum possible score in any one round is normally six). A player of the team winning the round again throws the cochonnet and another round begins. The game usually ends when one team has accumulated 13 points.

Pétanque: Equipment check


The only really essential equipment is a set of three steel boules. A set costs anywhere from US$5 for a rusty old set you may be lucky enough to come across to US$120 for a competition set. To be legitimate for competition play, a boule must conform to the following specifications:

A player who specialises in pointing (or placing) should normally favor a small, heavy boule. A heavy boule is slightly more difficult to displace, and a boule of the minimum allowable diameter presents a smaller target to the opposition's shooters. Women and young boys, usually having smaller hands and less arm strength, frequently compromise by selecting a boule that is both light and small.

A shooter should choose a lighter boule for the best chance of success. This may seem surprising, but in fact the decreased momentum of a light boule gives it the best chance of remaining in place after knocking an opponent's boule out of the game (the perfect, and much admired, shot known as a carreau). A shooter should not use a small boule: a shot that just barely misses with a small boule might have been effective if only that extra 5 mm had been on the radius! In choosing a boule, however, perhaps the overriding consideration is "play with what you feel comfortable with."

Desirable but non-essential equipment

A proper cochonnet is turned from beech wood and is between 2.5 cm and 3.5 cm in diameter. In the South of France, the home of pétanque, a cochonnet can be bought for very small change indeed. It may help to have a brightly-colored cochonnet, especially in conditions of low light, but the rules specify that a cochonnet may be stained but not painted.

A cochonnet is not regarded as essential, since in any gathering of pétanqueurs many people can be counted on to provide one. At a pinch, many natural objects can stand in.

Usefulness of a tape measure should be obvious: To settle arguments as to which of two boules is closer to the cochonnet.

Very non-essential equipment

As with all sports, equipment shops will try and sell you whatever they can, with the assurance that "you'll find you really need this". The following pétanque trivia is definitely not necessary -- although some of it is undeniably fun....

Who is Fanny?


Don't be fooled! Kissing Fanny is no reward (although that might depend on the Fanny...!). Kissing Fanny is a punishment for losing a game without scoring a single point!

It would appear that this tradition started in France's Savoy region, far from the sunny South! The first Fanny was a waitress at the café de Grand-Lemps, just after World War I. As legend would have it, she was so kindhearted that she would allow customers who had lost a game of boules without scoring a single point to kiss her... on the cheek.

This went on until one day the village mayor lost a game and came to collect his "prize". No one knows whether Fanny had a grudge against hime and wanted to humiliate him, but we do know that she stepped up onto a chair, lifted her skirt and offered him... a different pair of cheeks! The mayor was up to the challenge though, and less than a second later, two loud kisses resounded through the café. This was the beginning of a longstanding tradition...

The problem with this charming ritual is that players don't always have a Fanny to hand. That is, a Fanny who is willing to bare her backside in public. This is why, everywhere boules is played, a fake fanny is proudly displayed. The unhappy losers are obliged to kiss, in public, the generous cheeks of a Fanny whether in a painting, or made of pottery or as a sculpture. Thus, the consolation prize has become the ultimate humiliation for boules players everywhere.

C/o Club Secretary
PO Box 265
Mission Beach, Queensland, 4852
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Mission Beach Petanque Club Inc
NFP incorporated entity IA41898,
ABN 82 459 569 396
ANZSIC Class 9139 (Amusement and Other Recreational Activities n.e.c)