TO THE INITIATED, IT'S A BUcolic war game: Six men get in a huddle and scratch their chins. One walks 10 feet away, about-turns, leans forward, cups a silver ball behind him and scrutinizes a cluster of silver balls at the feet of his friends. With a last-minute cry of "Attention, les pieds!" ("Watch out for your feet!"), he heaves his right arm forward and lets fly. The goal is to get closest to an even smaller marker ball, and knocking competitors' balls out of the way is part of the game.

We're not talking boccie, that similar but hopelessly formal Italian game (it requires a court); we're talking pe'tanque -- as French as pa~te' and just as addictive. Why else would members of La Joyeuse Boule, a Washington pe'tanque club, spend their weekend afternoons at Carderock and on the Mall whapping the figurative stuffing out of 1 1/2-pound metal balls until the sun rolls out of sight?

Rules go somewhat like this: You get two or three balls (depending on the number of players) that you roll, pop in the air or launch like hand grenades. There are two teams of up to three players each; if your team ends up with the ball or balls closest to the marker ball, your team wins a point for each ball. Then you start another round. The game ends at 13 points.

Local players include Jacques Biaggini, founder and club president and bartender at Le Lion d'Or; Pierre Pluvinage, chef from the old Rive Gauche, now retired; Father Brien McCarthy, Catholic chaplain at American and Gallaudet universities; and Bob Morrison, owner of Alexandria's Morrison House hotel and president of the other Washington pe'tanque club, National Capital Club de Pe'tanque.

In France, where good citizens carry pe'tanque balls in the trunks of their cars, 5 million play, and 500,000 belong to the Federation Franc ais de Pe'tanque et Jeu Provenc al compared with only 500 in the Federation of Pe'tanque USA. But the game has caught on in more than 30 countries (Japan, Thailand, Sweden and Madagascar, to name a few), and the truly devout plan a campaign to get it into the 1996 Olympics. Already there are world championships, and qualifying games for the U.S. teams are on the Mall this weekend.

There will doubtless be a little recruiting going on as well. "French don't immigrate anymore. We would like more young Americans to play," says Joseph Acchiardi, La Joyeuse president.

"Pe'tanque takes more concentration than it looks like," says one convert, 22-year-old Bill Didden. "It took a day to learn, but I know it will take years to perfect."