The sport the French are truly mad about is cycling. It was, after all, in Paris’s Palais Royale gardens in 1791 that the precursor of the modern bicycle, the célerifière, was presented; the French can also legitimately claim the sport of cycle racing as their own, with the first event, a 1200-metre sprint, held in Paris in 1868 – won by an Englishman.
The world’s premier cycling race is the Tour de France, held over three weeks in July and covering around 3500 kilometres. The course changes each year, but always includes some truly arduous mountain stages and time trials, and ends on the Champs-Élysées. An aggregate of each rider’s times is made daily, the overall leader wearing the coveted yellow jersey (maillot jaune). Huge crowds turn out to cheer on the cyclists and the French president himself presents the jersey to the overall winner. The last French cyclist to win the Tour was Bernard Hinault in 1985, while Bradley Wiggins, the 2012 champion, was the first Brit to clinch the title since 1903, followed a year later by team mate Chris Froome, who has made further history by winning it twice (2013 and 2015).
Other classic long-distance bike races include the Paris–Roubaix, instigated in 1896 and held in April, which is reputed to be the most exacting one-day race in the world; the Paris–Brussels (Sept), held since 1893; and the rugged seven-day Paris–Nice event (March). Details for all the above can be found at letour.fr.
Football (soccer) is France’s number one team sport. After its legendary win at the 1998 World Cup, the national team’s chequered recent history reached its nadir at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, when the players refused to train after Nicolas Anelka was expelled from the squad for verbally abusing coach Raymond Domenech; a disastrous World Cup performance subsequently ended with defeat 2-1 by the host nation and an ignominious exit from the competition in the first round. In both the 2012 Euros and the 2014 World Cup they surpassed the group stages but were knocked out by eventual victors Spain (2012) and Germany (2014).
The domestic game has been on the up in recent years, and average attendances have improved. The leading club sides include AS Monaco, Olympique Lyonnais and Olympique de Marseille. For the latest information visit the website of the Ligue de Football Professionel at lfp.fr.
Tickets to see domestic clubs are available either from specific club websites, or in the towns where they are playing; ask at local tourist offices. To watch the national team, you can get tickets online at fff.fr (Fédération Française de Football), or try francebillet.com. Prices tend to start at around €10–15.
Although most popular in the southwest, rugby enjoys a passionate following throughout France. The France rugby team is continually successful in European tournaments while in the World Cup clash they have reached the final three times, losing to New Zealand in 1987 and 2011, and to Australia in 1999. More international competition is provided by the Six Nations tournament – the other five nations being England, Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales. France has been one of the most consistent teams in recent years, having won the competition sixteen times, shared it a further eight times and gained the Grand Slam title in 2002, 2004 and 2010.
Domestic clubs to watch out for include Toulouse (record-breaking four-time winners of the Europe-wide Heineken Cup), Paris’s Stade Français, Perpignan, Brive, Agen, and the Basque teams of Bayonne and Biarritz, which still retain their reputation as keepers of the game’s soul.
Tickets for local games can be bought through the clubs themselves, with prices starting around €10. For bigger domestic and international games, they are available online at francebillet.com. Information can be found on the Fédération Française de Rugby’s website (ffr.fr).
In the Basque country (and also in the nearby Landes), the main draw for crowds is pelota, a lethally (sometimes literally) fast variety of team handball or racquetball played in a walled court with a ball of solid wood. The most popular form today is played with bare hands in a two-walled court called a fronton. In other varieties wooden bats are used or wicker slings strapped to the players’ arms. Ask at local tourist offices for details of where to see the game played.
In and around the Camargue, the number-one sport is bullfighting. Different from the Spanish version, the course camarguaise involves variations on the theme of removing cockades from the base of the bull’s horns, and it’s generally the fighters, rather than the bulls, who get hurt. Further west, particularly in the Landes département, you’ll come across the similar courses landaises where men perform acrobatics with the by no means docile local cows.
Spanish bullfights, known as corridas, do take place – and draw capacity crowds – in southern France. The major events of the year are the Féria de Nîmes at Pentecost (Whitsun) and the Easter féria at Arles. See the local press or ask at tourist offices for details of where to pick up tickets.
In every town or village square, particularly in the south, you’ll see beret-clad men playing boules or its variant, pétanque (in which contestants must keep both feet on the ground when throwing). Although more women are taking up boules, at competition level it remains very male-dominated: there are café or village teams and endless championships.