Surfing the net the other day - if you can't play, you can as well read about petanque ;-) - I came across this nice, somewhat nostalgic post on a cool bikers blog:
Does anybody remember petanque?
One of the comments on the post, by "Frenchy", stated that...
"As a French guy, and especially as a French guy who grew up in the South of France I wanted to add one bit to your piece and knowledge: Petanque is really a Southern French term instead of the more common Boules. One would say Petanque in Marseille, but surely it would not be said by someone up North seriously (unless they were making fun of the Southern French accent/twang that occurs in an around Marseille...which is/was common with my Northern family members.). It is not quite slang, but less proper than saying boule."
To me that's a misconception, so I replied with:
"Boules" is the generic term for any ball tossing game in France such as boule Provençale, boule Lyonnaise or boule de Fort. Pétanque evolved from la boule Provençale in the early 1900's, in the South of course, meaning boules à "pieds tanqués" (feet steady, fixed). I don't know when Frenchy left his homeland, but "pétanque" is the common term for the game, even up North: La Voix du Nord - Valenciennes.
Since pétanque is now by far the most popular of all the above, "jouer aux boules" almost implies that it is "pétanque". And you will hear both terms used interchangeably from Menton all the way to Dunkerque.
We get the question "boules vs petanque?" regularly, so I hope this succinct explanation will be helpful.