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Wine Capital Of Bordeaux Hit By Drownings Blamed On Binge Drinking Culture

A series of drownings in the Garonne river has traumatized the French city of Bordeaux. First believed to be the work of a "serial pusher," it has become clear that the cause of this spate of accidental deaths is binge drinking.

Mirroir d'Eau, Bordeaux (Michel Courajoud)
Mirroir d'Eau, Bordeaux (Michel Courajoud)
Florence Moreau

BORDEAUX - On May 9, Julien Teyssier's body was fished out of the Garonne river. The 25-year-old croupier had been missing for ten days. Since February, he is the third person to have drowned in the river – drunk and alone after an outing with friends – and the fifth since July 2011.

For months now, Bordeaux has been covered with the smiling portraits of these five young men. Important human, aerial, terrestrial, fluvial and canine resources were mobilized to search for them. In the end, each of the bodies was recovered by chance.

When they went missing, the most extravagant rumors circulated, spreading on forums and social networks. People were looking for a culprit, something that could explain the deaths. The idea of a "serial pusher" was put forward after an organ trafficking theory was proved wrong when the first bodies were found with no traces of surgery. "Other young people have fallen into the river while they were peeing or straddling the railing for fun, or on a dare," says a policeman close to the investigation. "The good thing is that they were fished out in time. They quickly sobered up. When we interrogated them, none of them mentioned a pusher." At the end of March, the Bordeaux prosecutor's office organized a press conference to quash these persistent and "unfounded, unreliable rumors."

The truth is harsher: the deaths are due to an accidental fall linked to an excessive consumption of alcohol. The recent spate of drownings has given Bordeaux an electroshock, as the town becomes aware of binge drinking at parties. "He hadn't partied in months," says Arnaud Teyssier, Julien's father. "But these kids, when they party, they party hard…" Bordeaux is now forced to face up to the facts and acknowledge the binge drinking problem.

Every night, especially during weekends, hundreds of young people go from bar to bar. For a cheaper and friendlier experience, many of them drink their own concoctions or bottles of alcohol directly in the street. The risk of accidentally falling is highest when they are in this drunken stupor, often alone at the end of the night, attracted to the banks of the Garonne, so close and so dangerous.

And yet the banks, rid of their old warehouses, are a symbol of the Bordelais"s reconciliation with their river. A showcase for the city, a model of urban architecture, with a four-kilometer walkway, green resting areas, a popular jogging and partying venue. The central "Miroir d'Eau" reflecting pool, in the Bourse Square, has become the main rallying point for these young partygoers. "Ah, that's for sure, these quais are beautiful," says Arnaud Teyssier ironically. "But the beauty hides the danger. The water mirror flows into the river like an infinity pool."

Drunk-proofing the river

"In these conditions, this kind of tragedy could happen over and over again," sighs a policeman. In coordination with other French river cities facing the same problem like Rennes, Nantes or Lille, Bordeaux is struggling to find solutions without "putting a damper on the city's nightlife." Several ideas are being put forward. Surveillance cameras – even though it seems difficult to cover a 4 km walkway –, buoys on the railings, free buses to take the kids home, or installing a powerful lighting system to replace the soft and gradual one designed by water mirror architect Michel Corajoud. Everyone agrees that the priority is to install more fences, especially in the nightclub heavy "Bassins à flots' neighborhood, with railings directly on the river instead of back a meter.

Regulating the nightlife is a real challenge for the city. "I don't want to keep young people from partying," explained mayor Alain Juppé in March, "But a party isn't about getting drunk." "Bordeaux is traumatized, victims' families first, but also youths and the municipality," he declared in May. "We don't know everything and we don't control everything but we are looking for the best options."

Meanwhile, municipal and police decrees keep piling up. People caught carrying a bottle will be ticketed, group consumption of alcohol in public is banned and grocers and bottle-shops must close at midnight. Local organizations are setting up a buddy system to prevent kids from going home alone. Police controls are multiplying in an effort to stem people's habit of drinking alcohol on the riverbanks.

Since the drownings, things have changed. As soon as a young person disappears, rumors start about him or her falling in the river. Recently, another student was reported missing after an alcohol-fuelled night out. He wasn't answering his phone. Rescue teams started looking for him after the alarm was raised, until policemen knocked on his front door. He was at home, with a bad hangover.

Read the article in French in Le Monde.

Photo - Michel Courajoud

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