THE FRENCH INVENTED PÉTANQUE and they dominate the sport at the international level. The major French tournaments — the Mondial la Marseillaise à Pétanque, the Mondial de Millau, and the French National Championships — are far more difficult to win than is the International Federation’s World Championship, because the density of world class players in France is so high. Elsewhere on the Website of La Boule New Yorkaise, I provide annual reports on the Marseillaise and on the Mondial de Millau. Here, I discuss the Pétanque scene in France, and report on the country’s National Championships. The report is illustrated with photos by Martha Lewis, the leading photographer of elite Pétanque in the world (otherwise an artist-painter).
Background: Organization and Professionalization
All French sports are organized through registered clubs that provide members with licenses. The French Federation of Pétanque and Jeu Provençale (FFPJP) claims some 420,000 licensed members, including more than 60,000 women, and 80,000 players under the age of 20. By comparison, the French Basketball Federation licenses 90,000 fewer males than does Pétanque, and the Volleyball Federation has 300,000 fewer male licensees. In 2003, the Minister of Sport declared Pétanque to be a “Sport de Haut Niveau,” thus putting it on par with professional sports.
The FFPJP brings together 105 departmental federations (called “Committees”), who are further organized into 23 regional associations, called “Leagues.” Departmental committees sponsor about 30,000 official competitions annually, each of which is listed in the published “calendar” of the department or league in which it takes place. There are also 250 “national” tournaments (“concours nationaux”) which last two days, and attract the top players from around the country and the world.
At the close of the 20th century, the sport began to show clear signs of professionalization. Certain clubs began to pay players to transfer their licenses to them from other clubs. In the Auvergne, Dominique Usai (winner of the 2002 Marseillaise) founded the Elite Petanque Club, which attracted such stars as Marco Foyot, Zvonko Radnic, Michel Schatz, and Pascal Milei. The DUC, the leading club in Nice, gave contracts to the world championship tandem of 2001-02-03: Philippe Quintais, Henri Lacroix, and Philippe Suchaud.
Although I have been asked not to divulge the sums involved, it is clear that a player cannot live on the “salaries” paid to them. Most elite players have jobs. Suchaud works Monday-Thursday mornings in an abattoir; Michel Loy manages purchasing for a chain of supermarkets. Forever locked in permanent competition with one another, Foyot and Quintais own lines of Pétanque clothing that bear their names. Further, the superstars of French Pétanque are typically provided with expenses, and even a discreet appearance fee, to play in national tournaments. Pétanque alone can provide up to 25,000 Euros for a player like Suchaud, a huge sum compared with the situation just ten years ago, but a paltry amount compared with salaries paid in most other professional sports.
In June 2005, I had dinner with my friend, Victor Nataf, the “Directeur Technique” for the French Federation. Nataf is the most powerful man in the game today. Among other things, he is responsible for managing all of the competitive aspects of the Federation, including selecting the national team (seniors, juniors, women, etc.). We discussed his work at length.
Nataf has strongly encouraged the professionalization of the sport. His goal is to structure French Pétanque along the lines of other professional sports, like soccer or basketball, with a hierarchy of clubs organized into what Americans would call “leagues.” He is also developing a system for ranking all elite players based on their performance in the most important tournaments. For Nataf to be successful, he will have to reform radically the current system.
The issues involved are complex, as the following example will illustrate. At present, 256 teams qualify for the most prestigious French competition, the national triples championship, through departmental or league tournaments. The number of teams that can qualify from qualification tournaments is a function of the number of licensed players in each department or region. The department with the most licensed boulistes (nearly 20,000), the Bouches du Rhone (Marseille-Aix-en-Provence), qualifies 11 teams. In addition, teams from Marseille can qualify through the league tournament (Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur), which has a quota of four slots. Yet 68 of the 105 departmental committees can only qualify one team, typically departmental champion. If the best players in France gravitate toward, say, a dozen elite clubs, then most of them will not be able to qualify, and the championship will not involve the best players. One solution would be to make department qualifiers preliminary to regional and national qualifiers: thus the champion of the Cantal, a tiny department, would not automatically qualify if it did not contain ranking players; instead, it might have to beat a team from the DUC-Nice, elite players that had failed to win a place in the regional or departmental qualifiers. The problem is even more acute for the singles and doubles championships, in which only the departmental or league champions qualify for the nationals.
Professionalization has also brought foreign players to France. The most prominent example is Claudy Weibel, the shooter for the Belgian team that won the world championship in 2000. Weibel was licensed in Usai’s club in 2004, but transferred this year to Star Masters Pétanque, a club in the Paris region. Star Masters boasts a number of world champions, including Michel Loy, Eric Sirot, Didier Choupay, and Alain Bideau. In 2005 and 2006, Weibel qualified for the 2005 national triples championships with Loy and Sirot, and for the 2005 national doubles with Sirot (after winning the departmental championship.
Thus, it is possible for a foreigner to win the French national championship.
What might surprise Americans is that Weibel remains on the Belgian national team. International rules do not permit a player to possess more than one license, but the International Federation otherwise leaves licensing policy to national federations. French Federation rules allow (a) any player of any nationality to be licensed with any French club, and (b) every player with a French license to play in the qualification tournaments that lead to the national championships. At present, French teams may not contain more than one non-national, and a foreign national may not play on the French national team in the world championships. For its part, the Belgian Federation does not have a rule prohibiting players licensed outside of Belgium from playing on its national team. As Nataf notes, the situation benefits both countries: France enhances the quality of its national championships, and Belgian players gain new competitive experiences.
There are now French players who play (and are paid to do so) in Italy, and there are players from Belgium, Madagascar, and Spain who are now licensed in France and Switzerland.
The French National Championships
The National Triples Championship, inaugurated in 1946, is the most venerable and prestigious of all French national titles. The Singles and Doubles, which are now held at together each year, began in 1966 and 1970 respectively.
I have attended the Men’s singles, doubles, and triples championships every year for many years now. Each is a two-day event. Over the course of the first day, play proceeds until there are 16 teams (or players in singles) remaining. The first round begins in pools of four (two teams eliminated after 3 games), and from then on it’s direct elimination. Second-day competition begins at 8 a.m., with the round of 16. The first day is free for spectators, while seats for Sunday typically cost no more than $7. I highly recommend these events to Americans: there is no better introduction to the elite French game. In 2007, the National Triples will take place in Dijon, June 23-24, and the Singles-Doubles in Saint Louis (Alsace-Lorraine), June 30-July 1, one week before this year’s Marseillaise.