Why are people dying every year on France’s most popular coastline?

The French Riviera famously has lots of sunshine, palm trees, sandy beaches and the tranquil Mediterranean Sea. But it also has a hidden danger, as writer John Laurenson discovered.

Why are people dying every year on France's most popular coastline?
A lifeguard training exercise on Pampelonne beach. Photo: John Laurenson

It was very good to be back. The beach at Pampelonne is a lovely place to go with your family. It may be only a short ride in one of the sinister black vans now favoured by the hospitality industry from jet set central St Tropez, but it is three miles of mainly-public sandy beach by the warm, clear and tranquil sea. 

We’re a swimming family. We swim in the morning, we swim in the evening and every so often when the water’s particularly flat, we do what we call “l'exploit” and swim from one bay round the headland to the next bay and walk back.

READ ALSO The 43 maps you need to understand Provence and the French Riviera

Lifeguards training on Pampelonne. Photo: John Laurenson

Even on stormy days we go and muck about in the waves. So when the wind started to blow this year we hit the water.

There was an orange flag up. Beach flags are like traffic lights. Green for go, red for stop and orange for speed up or you might not make it in time.

So there we were bobbing around, having an alright time on the edge of the water. After a while I had the idea – questionable in retrospect – to swim out a few strokes to where the waves were bigger. And immediately found myself being swept out to sea.

I swam towards the beach as hard as I could but I was going further and further out.

I could see my wife. Increasingly terrified as she realised what was happening. Pierre, my sixteen year-old, a stronger swimmer than me, had understood quicker than anyone. He’d been out near where I was and had felt the current. And swam out towards me.

I was exhausted. And drinking a lot of water. Going under every time another wave crashed over my head.

Most of our memories are visual. I now have a very powerful one that is tactile – of Pierre’s hand pulling me towards the beach.

I reckon another three minutes out there and I would have been dead.

The lifeguards arrived as, supported by my wife and son, I was staggering back up the sand. They’d been saving someone else, one of them said a bit apologetically as she fitted an oxygen mask over my face. (I was feeling very good to be alive but a lot of thrashing about in the water and holding your breath puts the oxygen level in your blood right down. Makes sense really.)

Pampelonne is a very popular tourist destination, despite its hidden dangers. Photo: AFP

The lifeguards saved several dozen people on that day and the following day, when the sun was back out and the waves had calmed down a bit.

The next day I learned from a lifeguard that a 59-year-old Italian tourist had drowned that morning. The lifeguards saved his wife and daughter but he was floating face-down when they got to him. After an hour on the beach they managed to get his heart beating again but his brain was dead. 

This is Pampelonne, perhaps the most famous beach on the French Riviera.

And people drown here on a regular basis. 

The summer before last a similar current killed the philosopher Anne Dufourmentelle, well-known for her books and programmes on France Culture. Her heart gave out as she tried to save two boys who’d got into trouble in the waves (and who survived).  

Head of the local lifeguard team Mylène Matton told me: “Many people, many tourists don’t think the Mediterranean is dangerous but it is and it is getting more so. When the east wind blows, you have waves going right, left and straight ahead. It’s a washing machine.

“And that creates currents in the water that are much more violent than they used to be.”

A total of 157 people drowned accidentally swimming off the French coast last year. More than twice the UK figure. The Riviera (Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur) region is the most dangerous in France by a big margin and the most dangerous département is the Var (which contains the famous beaches of Hyères, St Tropez, St Raphael, Sainte Maxime, Fréjus, etc).

So what should you do if you find yourself being pulled by a riptide towards a watery grave?

Wave with both hands (if you can manage that). Once you’ve been seen, do exactly as I didn’t do. Go with the flow. Don’t try to swim against the current. Conserve your energy. Beyond the breaking waves it’s easier to stay alive and easier for the lifeguards to save you.

Or even better for those stormy days at the seaside – play Scrabble instead.

John Laurenson is a British reporter who moved to France after university. After a brief period teaching English (and learning French) he wheedled his way into journalism and has been making his living that way ever since. He had a longish stint presenting a BBC discussion programme about Europe and a shorter one doing TV but is best-known as a radio reporter for BBC Radio 4. He has reported from most countries in Europe and around the Mediterranean.

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Snobs, beaches and drunks – 5 things this joke map teaches us about France

A popular joke 'map' of France has once again been widely shared on social media, sparking endless jokes at the expense of certain regions of France.

Snobs, beaches and drunks - 5 things this joke map teaches us about France
Image AFP/
But while the map – created by – is clearly intended to be comic, it teaches us some important points about France’s regional divides, local stereotypes and in-jokes.

Here are some of the key points.
1. Everyone hates Parisians
The map is purportedly France as seen through the eyes of Parisians, and contains a series of snobbish and rude generalisations about every part of France that is not maison (home) in the capital and its surroundings. The great majority of the country is labelled simply as paysans (peasants).
The general stereotype about Parisians is that they are snobs, rudely judging the rest of the country which they regard as backwards and full of ploucs (yokels) apart from small areas which make nice holiday destinations.
Like all sweeping generalisations, this is true of some people and very much not of others, but one of the few things that can unite people from all areas of France is how much they hate les parigots têtes de veaux (a colloquialism that very roughly translates as ‘asshole Parisians’)
2. Staycations rule
Even before Covid-related travel restrictions, holidaying within France was the norm for many French people.
As the map shows, Parisians regard the southern and western coastlines as simply plages (beaches) which they decamp to for at least a month in July or August. In the height of summer French cities tend to empty out (apart from tourists) as locals head to the seaside or the countryside.
In winter the Pyrenees and Alps are popular ski destinations.
3. Northerners like a drink
There is a very widespread stereotype, although not really backed up by evidence, that the people of Normandy, Brittany and the Nord area like a drink or two. Many suggest this is to cope with the weather, which does tend to be rainier than the rest of France (although has plenty of sunshine too).
Official health data doesn’t really back this up, as none of these areas show a significantly greater than average rate of daily drinkers, although Nord does hold the sad record for the highest rate of people dying from alcohol-related liver disease.
What’s certainly true is that Brittany and Normandy are cider country, with delicious locally-produced ciders on sale everywhere, well worth a try if you are visiting.
4. Poverty
The map labels the north eastern corner of France as simply pauvres – the poor.
The north east of the country was once France’s industrial and coal-mining heartland, and as traditional industries have declined there are indeed pockets of extreme poverty and high unemployment. The novel The End of Eddy, telling the story of novelist Edouard Louis’ childhood in a struggling small town near Amiens, lays out the social problems of such areas in stark detail.
However poverty is not just confined to one corner of France and the département that records the highest levels of deprivation is actually Seine-Saint-Denis in the Paris suburbs.
5. Southern prejudice
According to the map, those from the south are either branleurs (slackers) or menteurs (liars). 
This isn’t true, obviously, there are many lovely, hard-working and truthful people in southern France, but the persistent stereotype is that they are lazy – maybe because it’s too hot to do much work – and slightly shifty.
Even people who aren’t actually rude about southerners can be pretty patronising, as shown when south west native Jean Castex became the prime minister in summer 2020. 
Castex has a noticeable south west accent which sparked much comment from the Paris-based media and political classes, with comments ranging from the patronising – “I love his accent, I feel like I’m on holiday” – to the very patronising – “that accent is a bit rugby” (a reference to the fact that TV rugby commentators often come from France’s rugby heartlands in the south west).
In his first year as PM, Castex has undertaken a dizzying schedule of appointments around the four corners of France, so hopefully the lazy myth can now be put to bed.
And anyone tempted to take the piss out of his accent – glottophobie (accent prejudice) is now a crime in France.
For more maps that reflect France, head to