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Things to do in the Languedoc:   Pétanque

Pétanque is a form of boules where the goal is to throw metal balls as close as possible to a small wooden ball called a cochonnet (jack, litterally "piglet").

The game, based on the traditional jeu provençalis, is normally played on hard dirt or gravel, but can also be played on grass or other surfaces. Similar games are bocce and bowls, but a distinctive feeature of petanque is that the ball is thrown standing with the feet together in a small circle. The name petanque comes from Les Ped Tanco meaning "feet together" in the Provençal dialect of Occitan.

The current form of the game originated in 1907 in the Provenceçal town of La Ciotat. Pétanque is played by some 17 million people in France, especially during their summer vacations.

An important part of the game is its leisurly pace. Games are not rushed and a bottle of Ricard is generally not far away.


Pétanque Rules

The game is generally played one of three different configurations:

  • triplets, with two teams of three players each (two boules per player)
  • doublets, with two teams of two players each (three boules per player)
  • singles, played between two players (three boules per player)

Boules are made of metal and weigh between 650 g and 800 g, with a diameter of between 70.5 mm and 80 mm. The jack is made of wood or synthetic material and has a diameter of between 25 mm and 35 mm.

The playing area is at least 15 meters (49 ft) long, by 4 meters (13 ft) wide.

A player from the side that wins the toss starts the game by drawing a circle on the playing field (35 to 50 cm in diameter). Both feet must be inside this circle, touching the ground, when throwing. The player then throws the jack to a distance of between six and 10 metres from the starting circle. The cochonnet must be visible and at least one metre from any obstacle or boundary, otherwise it must be thrown again.

A player from the side that wins the toss then plays the first boule, generally trying to place it as close to the jack as possible. The opposing team must then get one of their balls closer to the cochonette, and keeps playing until they succeed. When they do, it is back to the first team to do better, and so forth.

A player may choose to 'point' a boule (get it as near as possible to the jack) or 'shoot' it (attempt to strike and displace another boule). When one team runs out of boules the other team plays their remaining boules. When all boules have been played, that is the end of a 'round', and the winning team scores a point for each boule that is nearer to the jack than the opposing team's nearest boule.

Displacing the cochonette with a boule is also allowed.

The team that wins a round starts the next one, and a new circle is drawn where the jack ended up in the previous round.

If a boule completely crosses any of the predetermined boundaries, it is dead and cannot be scored. Likewise, if the jack is moved and subsequently crosses a boundary, the round is scratched and the jack is thrown again. If only one team has boules remaining to throw when this occurs, they receive points for every unplayed ball. (Accordingly, deliberately shooting out the jack is a winning gambit in some circumstances.

A complete game is usually played up to 13 points.


Pétanque Strategy

A successful pétanque team has players who are skilled at shooting as well as players who only point. The pointer or pointers play first - the shooter or shooters are held in reserve in case the opponents place their boules well. In placing, a boule in front of the jack has much higher value than one at the same distance behind the jack, because pushing of a front boule generally improves its position. At every play after the very first boule has been placed, the team whose turn it is must decide whether to point or shoot. Factors that count in that decision include:

  • How close to the jack the opponents' best boule is,
  • The state of the terrain (an expert pointer can practically guarantee to place within about 15 centimeters if the terrain is well tended, not so if it's rocky or uneven), and
  • How many boules each team has yet to play.

A team captain normally requires his pointer to place a boule reasonably close in approach to the jack Although in competition, the first pointer sometimes aims not to get so close to the jack that the opponents will inevitably shoot their boule immediately. They then visualize an imaginary circle with the jack as its centre and the jack-boule distance as radius and defend that circle.


Pétanque History

Ancient Greeks are recorded to have played a a game of tossing coins, then flat stones, the stone balls, called spheristics, as early as the 6th century B.C. In the Greek game players tossed spheristics as far as possible but the Romans modified the game by adding a target that had to be approached as closely as possible. A Roman sepulchre in Florence shows people playing this game, stooping down to measure the points. This Roman variation was brought to Provence by Roman soldiers and sailors.

After Roman times stone balls were replaced by wooden ones, with nails knocked into them to give them greater weight. Erasmus knew the game and referred to it as globurum. It was played throughout Europe and became commonly known as balls, boules, or bowls.

In Occitania it evolved into jeu provençal, similar to today's pétanque, except that the field was larger and players ran three steps before throwing the ball. The game was played in villages all over Provence, generally on squares of land in the shade of plane trees. In France, the sport was - and still is - known as boules, and was played throughout the country. In England the sport evolved into "bowls" or "lawn bowling" - with different balls and terrain, but essentially similar rules and strategy.

Pétanque in its present form was invented in 1907 in the town of La Ciotat near Marseilles by a French player named Jules Lenoir, who rheumatism prevented him from running before he threw the ball. The length of the pitch or field was reduced by roughly half, and the moving delivery was replaced with a stationary one.


The first pétanque tournament with the new rules was organized in 1910 by Ernest Pitiot at La Ciotat. After that the sport grew with great speed, and soon became the most popular form of boules. The international Pétanque federation Fédération Internationale de Pétanque et Jeu Provençal was founded in 1958 in Marseille and has about 600,000 members in 52 countries (2002).

There are about 375,000 players licensed with the Fédération Française de Pétanque et Jeu Provençal (FFPJP). The FFPJP is the 4th-largest sporting federation in France. Licensed players play a more competitive form of Pétanque known as Pétanque Sport.

The first World Championships were organized in 1959. Recent championships were held in Faro (2000), Monaco (2001), Grenoble (2002, 2004 and 2006), Geneva (2003), Brussels (2005), and Pattaya / Thailand (2007). Fifty-two teams from 50 countries participated in 2007.

The game is now played throughout the world.

.. .. ..




Pétanque Equipment

Boules, made of steel with diameters ranging from 70.5 to 80 mm, and weights ranging from 650 to 800 grams. Competition boules must meet the following specifications (according to the International Federation of Petanque and Provencal Game):

  • be forged of metal.
  • have a diameter between 70.5 and 80 mm.
  • have a weight between 650 and 800 g.
  • bear engravings indicating the manufacturer's name and the weight of the boule.

In addition, a boule may bear an engraving of the player's first name or initials.

Leisure boules do not meet competition standards but are often used for "backyard" games. These boules are designed to suit all ages and sexes. They can be made of metal, plastic or wood (for play on a beach, for instance). The diameter of the boule is chosen based on the size of the player's hand. The weight and hardness of the boule depends on the player's preference and playing style. "Pointers" tend to choose heavier and harder boules, while "shooters" often select lighter and softer boules.

Jacks, made of wood or of synthetic material, having a diameter ranging from 25 to 35 mm. Competition jacks must meet the following specifications (according to the International Federation of Pétanque and Provençal Games):

  • forged of wood or of synthetic material which carry the maker's mark and have secured confirmation by the F.I.P.J.P. that they comply exactly with the relevant specification.
  • have a diameter between 25 and 35 mm.


Pétanque Glossary

To have the point
Avoir le point



To have one or more boules placed closer to the jack than those of the opponent(s).


To Point



To throw one's boule with the intent of stopping near the jack (also known as placing).


To Shoot



To throw one's boule at one of the opponent's boules to knock it out of play. This is often done when the opponent has pointed his/her boule very close to the jack.




To throw one's boule in a high arc so that when it lands it only rolls minimally.


À carreau



A special feat in which the shooter knocks the opponent's boule out while leaving his boule at or very near the point of impact (pronounced car-o).


To fanny
mettre fanny


To beat one's opponents 13 to 0. The figure of a bare-bottomed lass named Fanny is ubiquitous in the Languedoc and Provence wherever pétanque is played.

It is traditional that when a player loses 13 - nil it is said that “il est fanny” (he's fanny) or “il a fait fanny” (he made fanny), and that he has to kiss the bottom of a girl called Fanny.

Since there is not always an obliging Fanny available, there is usually a substitute picture, woodcarving or pottery so that Fanny’s bottom is available. The team which made "fanny" has to offer a beverage to the winning team (see the French popular expression "Fanny paye à boire !").


kiss Fanny, do a Fanny, be Fanny, or lose a Fanny
Embrasser Fanny, Faire fanny, Être fanny or (Se) Prendre une fanny



To lose 13-0


To do a bec
Faire un bec


Targeting one of your boule already in play and knocking it toward the jack.


Game on the Ground



Meaning one team is lying in a match-winning position while an end is still in progress


Bouchon; petit ; têt
gari (en provençal)







Petanque Trivia

In the 14th Century, King Charles IV and Charles V of France forbade the sport to commoners, a prhibition lifted only in the 17th century.

Henry III of England banned the playing of the game by his archers.

The French artist Meissonnier made two paintings showing people playing the game.

Honoré de Balzac described a match in La Comedie Humain.

Matches of jeu provençale at the turn of the century are described in the memoirs of novelist Marcel Pagnol.


















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