The image of "boules", or pétanque, as a peaceable game for old men in berets has been shattered by an outbreak of "bouliganisme" in rural France.
One local pétanque federation, in Nièvre, western Burgundy, has been forced to suspend competitive matches after brawls and acts of vandalism on the boules piste or pitch.
Incidents have included assaults with the heavy metal boules themselves and vicious exchanges of words, and blows, after one team has tried to chambrer, or wind up, another.
Some players blame a minority of travelling people, or Gypsies, who are fond of boules. Others say the problem is much wider than that, and has been fuelled by drink and betting.
Hervé Basset, editor of Boulisme magazine, said: "There has always been a certain amount of winding up of opponents. Now, it is not funny any more. There are provocative remarks, threats. We have gone from jests to punches." Incidents have been reported in Normandy, Languedoc and the south-west but the most serious outbreaks of violence have been in Nièvre, a usually blameless departement just west of the great bend in the river Loire.
Last October, a group of travelling people were accused of refusing to pay for their drinks at the buvette, or outdoor bar, at a boulodrome near Nevers. After a similar incident in March, a club president said he was backed against a wall and a small shearing knife was pointed at his throat. In May, there were scuffles after accusations of a theft of boules.
The prefect, or senior national government official, in the département, ordered all competitive matches in the Niévre to be suspended indefinitely. A partial resumption is planned next week, after a peaceful demonstration in Nevers last weekend.
The word bouliganisme has been coined by the local press. Although the prizes in boules contests are relatively small, about €500 (£340) for a team of three, large side-bets are sometimes made. To raise cash for the prizes, boules clubs rely on the profits from sales of drink. They have, so far, refused suggestions that the pistes should go dry.Reuse content