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

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!