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A Guide to Pétanque (Boules): A French Lawn Game

A Guide to Pétanque (Boules): A French Lawn Game

Pétanque: A French Game

Commonly known as pétanque, the game of boules is considered one of the most popular sports among the French. The game is not far from British bowling and Italian pétanque (Bocce Ball).

Petanque is played on a clay surface under plane trees, with a glass of pastis close by. If you want to learn more about this typically French sport, you’ve come to the right place!

Let’s learn about the rules of Pétanque.

The History of the Pétanque Game

Pétanque balls
Pétanque balls @French Iceberg

Petanque is descended from one of the oldest games in human history: the archetypal game of throwing or rolling an object as close as possible to a marker. Petanque belongs to a family of ball games that developed in the Mediterranean, today called boules in French and Bacci in Italian.

Around 1907, Jules LeNoir modified an older game called Jeu Provençal, inventing what eventually evolved into the modern sport of pétanque.

In Jeu Provençal, players first draw a circle on the ground, then throw a small ball called a bouchon or cochonnet between 12 and 20 meters. The players try to place their balls as close to the cork as possible. They do this by taking one step out of the circle in any direction and perching on one leg, rolling or swinging the ball in the air toward the cork.

The shooters try to hit the opponent’s ball away from the cork and run three steps from the circle. On the third step, in the air, they throw their ball at the target ball, before the next foot (the fourth step) hits the ground.

Jeu Provençal is an accessible sport, still played by tens of thousands of people, mainly in the south of France. The game lasts between three and four hours. The most important competitions are the French national championships, usually in June, and the Provençal, which takes place in Parc Borély in Marseille, in August.

Jules LeNoir was an excellent Jeu Provençal player until an accident left him paralyzed from the waist down. Although confined to a wheelchair, he began challenging players to a new betting game, involving pointing and shooting at a cork by standing players with their feet placed in the circle.

The word Pétanque is simply derived from pieds (feet) and tanqués (“firmly attached” or “nailed” in the local dialect). Jules LeNoir invented Pétanque in La Ciotat, a booming shipbuilding town and port located between Marseille and Toulon. Today, this shipbuilding industry is no longer active.

La Ciotat
La Ciotat / Raffaele pagani, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

There are two more or less professionalized boulodromes (petanque courts) in the city: Boulomanes and the Bouledrome Jules LeNoir. In summer, these courts host tournaments almost every day.

Each year, the event brings together more than 10,000 players and tens of thousands of spectators over five days, spread out over the various petanque courts set up throughout the city. Competitors come from all over France and the world to play what is equivalent to the Champions League in soccer or the Grand Slam in tennis.

Before Starting: Details that You Need to Know

Throwing petanque balls
Throwing petanque balls @French Iceberg

The Characteristics of Pétanque Balls

  • Balls made of metal 
  • Have a diameter between 7,05 cm (minimum) and 8 cm (maximum) 
  • Have a weight between 650 grams (minimum) and 800 grams (maximum)

We have an article to help you better choose your petanque ball when purchasing! The reference for pétanque boules in France and around the world is the OBUT brand.

Two Types of Players

“Tu tires ou tu pointes ?”

“Do you shoot or do you aim?”

That’s the question you’ll always hear near a petanque court in France. We can differentiate two types of players.

  • The pointer/ The aimer (= le pointeur) must get as close as possible with his balls (don’t worry, the French make jokes about “boules”) to the jack. This first category, it’s all about aiming. If successful, the team will only play when the other team manages to get closer to the jack. This role is a matter of delicacy. 
  • The shooter (= le tireur), his mission is to hit the opposing team’s ball to propel it away. This is a role that requires a much more powerful shot than the pointer.

Rules of the Game of Pétanque

Pétanque Team Composition

Petanque can be played with three different team compositions:

  • 1 vs 1
  • 2 vs 2
  • 3 vs 3

The most common is two against two, but the game can also be played three against three or “tête à tête” which is one against one. Personally, I find one-on-one less fun.

Petanque teams are usually made up of one, two, or three players. Regardless of the combination, only 12 boules can be on the court for a game.

So, if you are playing singles or doubles, each player has three boules. It means there are only six balls for one vs one. In triples, there are three players on each team and each gets two balls, for a total of 12 petanque balls.

To summarize:

Type of game in FrenchNumber of playersBalls per playerBalls in the game
Tête-à-tête1 versus 13 balls6 balls
Doublette2 versus 23 balls12 balls
Triplette3 versus 32 balls12 balls

Of course, pétanque can be adapted to suit the participants. A team of two people with three boules each can play against a team of three people, each with two boules, each receiving two boules. Or three players, each solo, can play head-to-head, each again using three boules. This game is adjustable and can be adapted to almost any situation which makes pétanque so convenient!

How to Play Pétanque?

To play pétanque, you will need metal balls, which are the balls you will throw, and a smaller wooden target ball is known in French as a “cric”, “cochonnet” or “but”.

There should be six balls per team, and only three if you are playing one-on-one. To ensure that everyone is shooting from the same spot, you should draw a circle on the court about 50 cm in diameter. Then the game can begin.

To start the game, a coin is tossed to decide which team will play first. When selecting teams, it is also a good idea to ensure that there is a mix of players of all ages and abilities.

The first player or team then decides on the throwing position. It is recommended to mark the spot, try using a stick, chalk, or a rope depending on the location of the game. The player who marked the spot then throws the small wooden ball. If the wooden ball does not land in an appropriate position, it must be thrown again until it does.

The first player then throws a petanque ball from the same position to the jack in an attempt to get it as close as possible. The opponent then stands in the same spot and tries to place a ball closer to his or her opponent.

The player may also propel the ball already shot by aiming at it. You must shoot within one minute of the start of your turn.

The ball closest to the jack is said to “hold the point”. The player/team that does not “hold” continues to shoot until they place a ball closest to the target jack ball, and so on. Players on the same team do not have to alternate shots, but players must always play their own balls.

Example of a pétanque set
Example of a pétanque set @French Iceberg

When a player or team has no more balls to play with, the other player or team must then throw the remaining balls and try to place them as close as possible to the target jack ball. The winner of a set becomes the first player in the next set, starting from the finish position of the previous set’s goal.

At each end, the player or team with the closest ball to the jack wins the game. They score one point for each of their balls that is closer than the closest ball belonging to an opponent. For example, if the two closest balls belong to team number 1, then team number 1 scores two points for the set.

At the end of the set, both teams determine which team has the closest ball to the jack. A full game is won by scoring 13 points or the total you choose to play.

Steps of a Pétanque Game

Rules of Pétanque
Rules and steps for playing pétanque @French Iceberg
  • Step 1

To start the set or round, the team that won the toss begins. Note that the team that wins the set will throw the jack in the next round. The designated pointer places a 50-centimeter plastic ring on the ground or draws a rough ring in the dirt. She or he stands in this ring and throws the jack, which must be between 6 and 10 meters away (from 19,7 to 32,8 feet).

  • Step 2

Then, the team throws its first ball. The other team then throws and tries to get closer to the jack. The next team to throw is the one that is still farthest away, alternating until all the balls have been thrown.

Much of the game of pétanque involves team strategy, silent consultation with lots of grimacing and chin rubbing, approaching the jack and the balls being played to plan the next game, and studying the game. It is important to note that once the game has begun, no changes may be made to the field.

Any obstacle, dead leaves, and rocks cannot be moved! And if there is a question about the distance to the jack, someone will get out a measuring tape and kneel down to determine who is closest.

Using a tape measure: Measuring the distance between petanque balls
Using a tape measure: Measuring the distance between petanque balls @French Iceberg
  • Step 3

The first point is given to the team whose ball is closest to the jack. Additional points are scored if other balls are also closer than the other team’s. The team that scores a point places the ring and throws the jack for the next end.

Measuring the distance between the jack and petanque ball
Measuring the distance between the jack and petanque ball @French Iceberg
  • Step 4

The game ends when a team scores 13 points. There is no requirement to have a point difference between the two teams as there may be in some sports.

Special Point

it is necessary to know that the jack can be moved by the balls, and the game will continue except if the jack exceeds the limits of the field (more than 20 meters / 65,6 feet). In this case, two different ends:

  • Both teams have balls left to play, in which case you must start a new set. 
  • One of the two teams has no more balls, the other team wins the number of points of the number of unplayed balls.

To Remember

  • Score 13 points to win a game
  • Throw the jack at least 6 meters away (19.8 feet)
  • The team that wins the round starts the next one

How to pronouce Pétanque?

The word pétanque is pronounced in a simple monotonous way. The word is written with the phonetic alphabet petɑ̃k.

Pétanque Pronunciation

La Pétanque Pronunciation

Fun Rule: La Fanny

The Fanny in French culture is when a team loses without scoring a point. In the case of pétanque, that would be 13-0. The Fanny must be announced before the start of the game and a bet can be placed.

Originally losers were required to “kiss the fanny”, which is the bare butt of a female representation (often a statuette).

When Do the French Play Pétanque?

Summer is the favorite season for the French to play pétanque, as it is also the perfect time to introduce children to the game. Mornings are usually devoted to family and various chores, but pétanque enthusiasts gather in the evening or afternoon.

If you want to go home with a smile on your face, try to meet French pétanque players, they will be happy to share their common passion with you. Unlike other physical sports, pétanque is accessible to everyone.

The Dimensions of a Pétanque Court 

For those who live in neighborhoods that do not have a dedicated court, players build their own court. In this case, as in any personal use, the dimensions are not too important.

The only thing to consider is the distance over which the jack must be thrown, i.e. between 6 and 10 m from the circle. You must also allow for a distance of one meter at each end, for a total of at least 12 meters long and 3 meters wide (around 39 and 9,8 feet).

In contrast, national competition fields must meet standards, i.e. 15 meters long and 4 meters wide (around 48 and 13 feet). In other championships, a field with dimensions of 12 meters x 3 meters is acceptable.

Games Similar to Pétanque

Petanque game is currently played in almost all countries, some of which have even adopted other concepts, but just as fun. This is the case for the Italian bowling game called Bocce Ball.

The biggest similarity between the two sports is that players in both games throw a ball with the goal of getting it as close as possible to a smaller target ball. The rules of the game are almost similar but there are some important differences between petanque and bocce.

Bocce court
Bocce court @Getty Images

On the other hand, we can also notice the boule lyonnaise. To explain the link between this discipline and petanque, the boule lyonnaise is the source of inspiration for the Provençal game. Subsequently, it is the latter that led to the petanque. You also have the Jeu Provençal which is more difficult than petanque, even if the basic rules are generally identical. Indeed, the player will have to throw a ball on a field up to 24 m long.

Originally from England, boulingrin (Lawn bowling) is also a variation of pétanque, where the aim of the game is to throw the balls as close as possible to a target. The main variants of pétanque are the Flemish boule (played in the Netherlands / Belgium / Northern France)  or bourle.

There are also la boule de fort (Val de Loire area), le jeu de berges or les boules parisiennes, boule de sable, le jeu de palets Breton (from French Brittany) or a more surprising game les boules carrées (the square balls).

Actually, there is a new trendy game taking over the pétanque in France, it is the game of Möllky. It is a Scandinavian game with wooden number pieces that the players have to aim for in order to score points.

Pétanque in France and in the World

France is considered the birthplace of pétanque, with 298,151 players counted at the end of 2016. But several countries follow it closely. This is, for example, the case of Belgium, which has players capable of competing with the world champions. Several African countries are known to be strong opponents:

  • Madagascar occupies second place in the major championships of pétanque.
  • Senegal made it to the finals of the precision shooting event at the 44th World Pétanque Championships held in Dakar in 2008.
  • Morocco has its own federation which has a good structure and a long history.

Pétanque is also very popular in Tunisia where it has been played since 1881. Without forgetting Thailand, which has about two million players, some of whom are among the best in the world.

We can mention Spain, Germany, Monaco, Italy, Switzerland, Canada, and Great Britain.


It is almost impossible to meet a French person who has never played pétanque in his life. It is probably the most French sport. This sport belongs to the French culture, the French would be happy to teach you how to play petanque and you will probably have a great time.

A petanque set could be a great French gift idea for a friend. Petanque can be played by everyone and you don’t need to be in excellent physical condition to play it.

Do you know this sport? Do you want to learn about a new topic in French culture? Let me know in the comments! Now, I invite you to read two other blog posts about the sport in France: