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121 deaths by drowning in 35 days in France

Lack of lifeguards, and poor standard of swimming lessons to blame, according to secretary general of Fédération des maîtres-nageurs

The poor standard of swimming lessons in France and a lack of properly qualified lifeguards has been blamed after figures released by the government showed that 121 people, including several children, had drowned in seas, lakes, rivers, and swimming pools across the country between June 1 and July 5.

Santé Publique France's figures also showed there were 550 'accidents' linked to swimming in the same 35-day period. A third of sea drownings involved young people aged between six and 25 years.

More recently, on Sunday, July 8, three children died after slipping into a lake where swimming had been banned due to the low temperature of the water in Chalon-sur-Saône (Saône-et-Loire). On the same day, three young people drowned in the Loire, as did a 24-year-old woman in Trouville-sur-Mer (Calvados). On Tuesday July 10, an 8-year-old girl died in a swimming pool in Ingrandes (Maine-et-loire), while in the Côtes-d'Armor, a 58-year-old German woman drowned near a beach in Erquy.

A Santé Publique France study in 2016 found that one in seven people in France does not know how to swim.

Jean-Michel Lapoux, secretary general of the Fédération des maîtres-nageurs, said that the large number of deaths by drowning in France every summer can, in part be explained by falling standards in swimming lessons and water safety education.

He told Franceinfo: "Much of this [swimming] teaching has been taken from lifeguards to teachers, who often can't swim themselves, or badly."

And he warned that the situation is likely to get worse before it gets better. "More and more municipal pools are being closed. 

"You see a teacher using a pole and asking the children to cross the pool one by one, while the others wait. How much time does a child spend swimming in 40 minutes of class? Four minutes? That's not a swimming lesson! Swimming instruction in school would really have to be done with a buoy and a lifeguard."

He added that there is a shortfall of some 1,200 lifeguards across the country this summer, blaming the shortage on the cost of training. A full-time lifeguard training course lasts a year and costs between €4,000 and €8,000.

"Only a handful of subsidised unemployed people now take it, and every year we have a shortage of lifeguards. In many small towns, there are none. There are BNSSA [Brevet national de sécurité et de sauvetage aquatique] substitutes, who can supervise but cannot teach," Mr Lapoux said.

He added the Fédération des maîtres-nageurs had contacted 40 MPs last winter to warn them of the dangers ahead and to demand an improved training system for lifeguards, but said that the warning and appeal was met with silence.

He advised not visiting hotels that have unsupervised swimming pools, or even visiting friends who have an unfenced pool.

"As for beaches, we currently have some in France which are very large and we are obliged to set up supervised zones, but people do not go there. Parents should be encouraged to get children used to swimming in these areas," he said.

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