The Cultural Significance of Boules In Paris

By: Tom Malone - Summer 2017

Paris, France - On a warm Thursday afternoon, we strolled through a small park with cafes and fruit markets all around its edge. In the center of the park, dozens of old men gathered at the sand-and-gravel expanse of courts to play.

We sat on a bench and just watched. Four games were played at once; each game consisted of four or five participants. In the game closest to our bench, each man was at least 65 years old. In a game across the court, no participant was older than 35.

Each throw received a series of heckling and applause from all participants and people like us who just stopped to watch. Everyone was invested in this intense, yet good-natured competition.

Boules, or petanque, is a French version of bocce ball that began its popularity in small French villages as a way to pass the time. There is a small target ball that’s thrown about 30 feet away from the group of competitors. Each competitor checks the length of the throw to make sure it suits their abilities.

Then, each participant throws two metal balls, each weighing just under two pounds. The competitor whose ball is closest to the smaller target ball wins that round. As a reward, the winner gets to throw the target ball (and they get a point).

It sounds simple, but the fun is in the strategy. Some competitors choose to place their throws carefully. Some choose to place their throws in front of the target ball as a means of defense. Some play rough and try to knock other opponents’ throws off the court.

After each round, the old men we watched would heckle and deliberate over whose throw was actually closest. In their arguments, there was always a smile. They knew the stakes were low, but they played every afternoon on the same court and wanted to take any advantage they could to maintain their reputation.

Each elderly participant wielded a stick or long string with a magnetized end piece so they didn’t have to bend down to retrieve their throw. This ensured that they could continue to play this game for years to come.

The continuation of this afternoon tradition in the outer edges of Paris seems integral to their social calendars. The men played for an hour every afternoon. They got outside, they were physically active, and most importantly, they were able to be with friends.

Interested in playing some petanque yourself? Grab a set, find a court (or a patch of grass), and start playing. On your next adventure to France, maybe you can jump onto the court with the serious competitors.