14 Really Popular Sports in France

Find out which sports are the most popular in France, widely practised, and followed on tv. From the Olympic Games to local competitions, and of course, just for fun.
14 Really Popular Sports in France
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There is no doubt that France is quite a diverse country when it comes to the arts and culture, but the country is also a powerhouse when it comes to sports. France usually fields one of the largest teams in the Summer and Winter Olympics and regularly does will in World Cups and other international competitions.

And it all starts with the young. With a strong emphasis in French schools for moving and being active, schools in France offer Wednesdays off for children to participate sports and cultural activities.

But it is not all the same sports that you might find, in the US or UK, as examples. No baseball or cricket here in France. Some sports are internationally popular, while most are locally popular. So let’s find out the most popular sports in France, shall we? Allons-y!

1. Football

As two-time World Cup champions in 1998 and 2018, you can be sure that French football (soccer) is one of the top sports that are played and followed in France.

The French national team has also been European Champions (Euros) in 1984 and 2000. With French football stars like Kylian Mbappé and Paul Pogba, the team has been attracting young fans far and wide, and should be favorites for years to come.

football locker room
Olympique de Marseille locker room

While France’s Ligue 1 is not at the same level as the English Premier League or Spain’s La Liga in terms of a fanbase and money from global TV rights, it is one of the top 6 leagues in Europe (along with Germany, Italy, and Portugal).

With a large fanbase and active rivalry between two of the top clubs Paris St. Germain and Olympique de Marseille, there are plenty of budding stars in the wings, ready to follow in the footsteps of their heros.

The French women’s national team has not had as much success as the men’s team, but the women’s league has many supporters, especially in the city of Lyon which has won 14 titles since 1974.

2. Tennis

Being the host of 1 of the Grand Slams, the French Open, tennis is one of the top popular sports in France. The tournament is known in France as Roland Garros after the Stade Roland-Garros in Paris where it is held every year for 2 weeks in June.

The sport of tennis has a long history in France. The ancestor of all racket sports, the Jeu de Paume was first officialized by French King François I in 1527.

Roland garros french open
Roland Garros French Open in Paris

Jeu de Paume literally translates to “game of palm” because in the earliest versions of the game, the players hit the ball with their hands. All racket sports such as badminton, tennis, squash, etc. evolved from jeu de paume.

These days there are tennis clubs all over France catering to amateurs and professionals, and one of the sports most pursued by French children.

3. Cycling

With the Tour de France being the crème de la crème of international cycling events, you know that cycling is big here in France. Held every july, the route traverses the country, visiting new towns and villages all over before finishing on the Champs Elysées in Paris.

Tour de France
Tour de France near the Eiffel Tower

Travel around the French countryside on a weekend and you will see cyclists of all ages around.

And with large cities like Paris, Marseille, and Nice trying to make their streets more bike friendly with special bike lanes and less cars, the cycling is only becoming more and more popular in France.

4. Skiing

With the Alps only about 3 hours away from major cities in France by high-speed TGV train, skiing is one of the top winter sports in France.

Along with tennis, skiing has become one of the things to do for the French bourgeois. One colleague described it, to a certain extent, as a “marqueur sociale” (a social marker), those who can afford it, and those who cannot.

Mont Blanc in France - skiing in the French alps
Skiing in the Alps

During the February school holidays, families who can afford it, pack up the kids in the car and head to the mountains for some exercise and fresh air.

With the top resorts nearby in the French Alps, kids as young as 3 are encouraged to learn to ski. In addition, schools offer ski-trips, employers offer discounts, and the government does everything it can to encourage the ski tourist industry.

5. Swimming

Another sport that France excels at is swimming. Fielding one of the top ten Olympic swim teams in the world, the country always expects to win several medals at international swim competitions.

And it is a sport that French children start young. As early as 3 years old, pre-schools in France start around 10 weeks of swim lessons. The idea is to get young kids comfortable in the water and learn water safety, with trained lifeguards.

6. Pétanque

Curling may be an Olympic event, but in France we have pétanque. A sport that originated in Marseille in Provence, it is a a variation of lawn bowls and the Italian game of bocce.

Pétanque has become so popular, there are leagues of players and competitions are carried live on sports tv channels. Today, it is as well-loved as bowling in the U.S. or curling in Canada.

petanque balls

The goal of the game is to get as many balls as possible next to a marker to score points. Players on each team alternate, with each opposing team trying to get as close to the cochonnet (marker) as possible, until every player has played their balls.

So the next time you are in France, head out to a nearby park with pastis in hand and a bunch of pétanque balls and find yourself a game. You can read more about pétanque and its rules here.

7. Rugby

As a regular in the Six Nations Championships, the annual competition between France, England, Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales, is gaining in popularity in the country, especially in the south.

There is also a rugby league, with 10 professional teams across the country, and many amateur teams in lower divisions.

8. Sailing

While rugby doesn’t get as much press in France as its fans think it deserves, the sailing event Vendée Globe receives extensive coverage every 4 years. It is a solo non-stop round the world yacht race.

sailboats in deauville normandy

The race was founded by Frenchman Philippe Jeantot in 1989, and departs from the Vendée department in the Loire region, on the west coast of France.

In addition to the Vendée Globe, there are dozens of small sail and boating clubs all along France’s extensive coastline.

9. Basketball

Basketball is not regularly featured on French tv. But thanks to several French basketball superstars in the NBA like Tony Parker, Rudy Gobert, and Joakim Noah (himself the son of French tennis star Yannick Noah), it is definitely a sport that is on the radar of French sport fans young and old.

Because of this star power, France is a top 10 mainstay in the FIBA World Rankings, and is especially popular among women’s sports.

10. Judo and Ju-jitsu

One of the sports that you might not expect is a favorite in France is judo. There have been many French judo champions. France is the second nation on the Olympic list with 51 medals, 2nd only to the Japanese who invented the sport.

In recent years, a large portion of the sport’s popularity is due to one man, superstar French judoka named Teddy Riner. Riner has won 10 World Championships gold medals to date, the first and only judoka (male or female) to do so, as well as two Olympic gold medals.

The sport is so well-regarded, it is the fourth sport in France in number of licensees.

11. Horse-riding

Keeping with the tradition of the olden days, horse riding is quite a prominent sport in France. Even in the Parisian suburbs, in towns like Maison-Lafitte are well known for their stables and horse-riding facilities.

Along with horse racing, dressage is also practised. The haute école (“high school”) is an advanced component of classical dressage, that is a highly refined set of skills. One of the world’s leading classical dressage programs include is the Cadre Noir in Saumur, France.

In addition, the Salon du Cheval de Paris (Paris Horse Show) is an annual event dedicated to horses and riding with over 450 exhibitors and 2,000 horses. The event occurs each November, gathering around 150,000 visitors over ten days.

12. Hiking

A sport that doesn’t have any Olympic competitions associated with, but that is still widely practised in France is randonée (meaning hiking). There is an official Fédération Française de Randonnée, along with small hiking clubs and competitions.

With many hiking trails, protected areas like the Gorges du Verdon have become popular hiking destinations for a bit of fresh air and exercise.

13. Canoe and Kayaking

Two sports that are combined in the French vernacular are canoeing and kayaking. Called canoë-kayak, it brings together several sports or leisure activities carried out not only with a canoe or kayak, but as well boats propelled by paddles and inflatable rafts.

Since France has many waterways, rivers, and canals across the country, there are small canoe and kayak clubs all across the country.

14. Golf

The history of golf in France dates back to 1856 and the creation of the first golf course in Pau, near the Spanish border. The Open de France which was inaugurated in 1906, is the oldest national open in Continental Europe.

These days over 400k licensees practise the sport, not counting all the amateurs, making it one of the top sports in France.

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If you enjoyed that post, you may want to read more facts about France. A bientôt!

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