Forget pastis-sozzled old men of Provence _ from Paris to Saint-Tropez, petanque is swank

PARIS (AP) — French elegance it isn't, but this summer French boules are cool.

More specifically petanque, a particularly un-athletic form of bowling usually associated with pastis-sozzled, flat-capped old men of Provence, is now the height of hipster fashion.

From the cool canal quays of Paris to the heart of celebrity-strewn Saint-Tropez, bright young things are whiling away long summer evenings lobbing large metal balls at a small wooden one.

Men have been testing their dexterity and skill with similar games for as long as time itself: the International Petanque Federation's website suggests that Adam and Eve could have played a version with apples.

But the 100-year old French game is outpacing rival games in the cool stakes. As many as 15 million French people play petanque (pronounced pay-TAHNK), the national federation estimates, mostly on a casual basis. And it's catching on internationally too. Bankers are at it in New York's Bryant Park, and in Thailand, army divisions have their own teams.

Now, some basics.

Petanque is played from a stationary position — either individually, or in teams of two or three.

Steel balls are thrown as close to a small wooden "cochonnet" as possible, either to kiss it or to blast opponent's balls out of the way.

It's easy to pick up, and fun to play. The lack of physical exertion allows for plenty of idle chitchat.

Asked what attracts them to the sport, petanquers of all ages, nationalities and skill levels swirl around one word: "conviviality."

In Paris, a petanque hot spot has sprung up by the canal where the Paris Plage urban beach and turquoise-framed Bar Ourcq loan out sets for free on opposite sides of the water.

"It's a nice setting here, drinking an aperitif among friends," said Gregory Maitre, a 35-year-old journalist, who like millions of French people learned the sport from his grandfather.

He says during the daytime, many petanquers are people without jobs, looking for a way to while away the hours. At sundown, the fashionable crowds take over.

By the Seine, where in August traffic lanes are transformed into an urban pleasure beach, young executives put their ties in the pockets at lunchtime. After a refreshing break, a small tap allows them to wash their hands and wipe the sand off their leather brogues before returning to the office.

In one sandpit, a young father enjoys a game while his baby snoozes in the buggy. Next door to him, a young expatriate Spaniard teaches her friends the basics she's picked up after three years of living in France.

"Being English, I think it's the closest thing to cricket," said John Morrison, a 37-year-old cameraman. "It's a very relaxing way of passing the afternoon."

Last year, the Paris Plage attracted 37,000 petanquers, most of whom were in their 20s and 30s, according to organizer Philippe Gaffet.

"It's in fashion again," he said. "Where that comes from, it's difficult to say."

Petanque is also popular with the jetset. Karl Lagerfeld, Vanessa Paradis and other VIPs made a big spectacle of playing on the Place des Lices in Saint Tropez after Chanel's Cruise show in May.

Louis Vuitton makes sets of petanque balls retailing at €1,520 for eight. Too delicate for gravel, they are designed to be played where steel balls cannot: on yachts or inside loft apartments.

And in Paris, the upmarket Saut du Loup bar has revived the royal tradition of outdoor parties in the gardens of the Royal Palace, near the Louvre.

Before its clientele jetted off to the French Riviera for their summer holidays, the bar was attracting around crowds of 200 to 250 for its Tuesday night petanque aperitifs.

The origins of the current game date back to 1907 in La Ciotat, then a small fishing village near Marseille.

Legend has it that a former champion of a more athletic form of boules who was crippled with rheumatism, so annoyed his friends with his critique of their style that they tweaked the rules so he could play too.

Thus Pied-Tanque — or static feet — was created.

This year, Paris Plage petanque is sponsored by boule manufacturer Obut, who sent representatives to study this new breed of players. Marketing director Philippe Meynard says, "It's become fashionable because men and women today want personal contact."

It's also cheap. A kit of 8 balls can cost as little as €15 and the game can be played anywhere there is a patch of scratchy gravel.

Only 320,000 are serious enough to join the Federation, which costs around €25 per year and helps petanquers to train for competitions.

More of those competitions are being televised, helping to draw a younger generation to the sport.

A fast rising star is Dylan Rocher, just 18, who helped his team win at the sport's largest contest: the Mondial la Marseillaise a Petanque.

This year more than 14,000 players competed from 19 countries including the U.S., China, and Thailand.

"Dylan Rocher is our pearl," said Alain Cantarutti, 57, who runs the French Petanque Federation.

Then he cackled. "Perhaps having such a good looking young man will increase the popularity of the sport among the ladies."

Petanque is also flourishing around the world.

Just a few blocks from New York's Times Square, in a corner of Bryant Park, bankers pit their wits against construction workers in La Boule New Yorkaise club, many of whose members originally hail from Europe, Asia and Africa, as well as the Americas.

"The real melting pot of America is right here in this club," says president Ernesto Santos.

And in Connecticut, celebrity chef Jacques Pepin plays with friends, all of whom have boules courts, in a league called Boules des Dimanches.

But while there may be 1,450 members affiliated to 37 clubs across the U.S. "most of our best players would be knocked out in round two of a good village tournament in France," according to Frank Pipal, secretary of the U.S. Petanque Federation.

The biggest overseas federation is in Thailand, where King Bhumibol's mother, Princess Srinagarindra, introduced it in the 1970s.

Divisions of the armed forces have teams as do major companies and government offices, all of which compete in tournaments. Many schools in the larger cities have a petanque field.

According to Anek Phukok, a former coach for the national team and a director of the Thai Petanque Association, "petanque is a much bigger sport in Thailand than in France."

In France, the game is still played by gnarly old men with red bulbous noses whiling away long summer evenings in the shade of centuries old plane trees.

But they are now having to make way for — and sometimes play with — a younger breed.

Pierre Boursier, 76, is vice president of AS Jardin de Luxembourg, which plays every afternoon on sandpits owned by the French Senate.

Most of his members are retired, but Boursier says he is signing up more and more working people, and even a few women.

"People come from all types of places," he said. "They come sometimes because they are sad, maybe they are going through a divorce, or they are stressed. We talk about it. It helps."


AP Television News producer Catherine Gaschka, Associated Press writers Daphne Rousseau and Jenny Barchfield in Paris, and Kinan Suchaovanich in Bangkok also contributed to this report.