Fanny is, as it were, the patron saint (or perhaps, goddess) of petanque.
Being fanny (être fanny) means losing a game of boules or pétanque without scoring a single point. Or, in other words, losing a game 13 to zero. In the USA, we call that a “shutout” game.
Having to kiss Fanny is the ultimate humiliation for boules players everywhere. But, as we shall see, it’s also possible to have a lot of fun with Fanny.
One day the village mayor lost a game and came to collect his “prize”. No one knows what prompted Fanny… perhaps she had a grudge against the mayor and wanted to humiliate him. She stepped up onto a chair, lifted her skirt and offered him… her fanny! The mayor was up to the challenge though, and less than a second later, two loud kisses resounded through the café.
This was the beginning of a longstanding tradition that, when a player (or team) loses a game without scoring any points, he (or they) must kiss the bottom of a girl named Fanny. The ceremonial humiliation often involves kneeling for the kiss, and includes the ringing of a bell. (Note the gentleman at the right, below, ringing a hand bell.)
And this is why, everywhere boules is played in France, a painting or a poster, or a sculpture of stone or pottery, of Fanny is proudly displayed… …ready to be kissed, in public, by the unlucky (malheureux) losers.
“Malheureux aux jeux. Heureux en amour.”
“Unlucky in sports. Lucky in love”
Often the losers have to buy drinks for the winning team, giving us the expression “Fanny paie à boire” — “Fanny’s buying the drinks!”
Although Marcel Pagnol often wrote about pétanque, and the film Fanny includes a famous game, the tradition is unconnected with him.
Like many mythical heroines, Fanny’s origins are a little murky. One version has it that she was a boules groupie in Lyon – the kind of girl whom today you might see hanging around soccer players. Another is that she was a café waitress in Isère. The Provençal version, which is naturally the the one I take as gospel, is that she worked in a bar overlooking the boulodrome in La Ciotat, where pétanque was invented.
— Peter Mayle, Provençe A-Z
Although petanque players generally claim Fanny as an exclusively petanque icon, Fanny pretty clearly dates back to the mid-1800s. This was long before the invention of petanque, when boule lyonnaise and other bocce-like boules variants were popular.
One bocce web site claims that Fanny came into being in Lyon around 1860 — and has the pictures to prove it. Here is Fanny with bocce balls — or perhaps boules lyonnaises — not petanque boules.
Perhaps the most charming representation of Fanny that I’ve seen is a little statuette that Patrick LeThorois photographed at an antiques fair in Isle sur la Sorgue. Again, note the large boules lyonnaises near her feet.