Symposium: French Made

  • Jack Smith

The scent of scandal hung over New York City’s MacDougal Street, where the 14th annual Veuve Clicquot Bastille Day Pétanque Tournament was under way.The team that won the tournament each of the last three years, thereby rendering itself ineligible for this year’s contest, had tried to sneak into the event under another name, only to be discovered and forced to the sidelines.

Such blatant skullduggery failed to cast a pall over the festive scene, which included sidewalks adorned with balloons and posters, a street covered in ankle-deep sand, and several hundred New Yorkers looking on. After seven hours of play, though, with the championship match at hand, thunderheads gathered in the midsummer sky, and disquietude settled over the crowd. How could they play in the rain? How would the wet sand affect the roll of the ball? How much longer could they even see in the fleeting daylight?

Some passersby, happening upon the scene, doubtless posed a more fundamental question: What on earth is pétanque? To the untrained eye, there is little more to it than a couple of guys rolling a ball back and forth. However, in France, its place of origin, pétanque is an obsession. Tournaments attract thousands of players and 100,000 or more fans.

“Pétanque was played for centuries in France, but it became even more popular after the revolution,” explains Michel Jean, proprietor of Provence, the tony MacDougal Street boîte that spawned the New York tournament. “It didn’t cost much to buy a set of boules [balls], and anybody could play, and so it took on a kind of populist chic.”

The game is similar to Italian boccie in that the goal is to toss a stainless-steel boule the size of an orange as close as possible to a smaller wooden ball, the cochonnet, or bouchon. A pétanque player might argue, however, that this is the equivalent of saying baseball is simply an American interpretation of cricket, for pétanque is quintessentially French. It is a sport he can play without putting down his cigarette or wineglass, and the true test of a pétanque champion is not his marksmanship, but rather the verve with which he postures and struts prior to each toss of the boule and the nonchalance with which he greets the hoots and catcalls from opponents as they attempt to shake his composure.

While pétanque may be the pastime of the people in its homeland, in this country, playing the game is tantamount to possessing a taste for pastis, wearing a beret, or driving a Deux Chevaux: It separates the sophisticate from the masses. “It defines you as a member of a tribe,” says branding consultant Gene Seidman, who plays with friends at his Westport, Conn., home. “It says you’re someone who knows the south of France, who’s tasted the sweetness of that lifestyle, and who appreciates the good things in life.”

With 50 teams signed up for this year’s tournament, the street in front of Provence was transformed into 16 sand-covered courts. Fortunately, one was tented, and when the rain began to fall, players for the two teams still in contention—Zinc Bar, an upscale jazz bar and lounge, and Raoul’s, a French bistro in Greenwich Village—made beelines for the shelter, with the crowd close behind.

An hour and a half after the final match began, Zinc was declared the winner and new pétanque champion of New York. The contest had not been resolved without incident. Play was interrupted by—Zut alors!—a spectator dashing au naturel across the court and then back again. The streaker’s appearance, like the three-time champs’ attempt to circumvent the rules, revealed much about pétanque’s participants, which is what any real sport is supposed to do.

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