Ask someone what they associate with the words "France" and "alcohol," and you'll probably hear some admiring answers about Champagne and fine wines.
But there's a new trend in French imbibing that's a far cry from the sophisticated stereotypes. "Neknomination," a dangerous binge-drinking game spreading from country to country through social media, has hit the French-speaking web at a worrying pace.
The "Neknomination France" Facebook page and several offshoots went up just last month. Together, they've racked up tens of thousands of followers. Like similar pages elsewhere, they're designed to gather binge drinkers and to give them a platform to post videos of their exploits and press friends to follow suit.
The rules are simple: Knock back a self-assigned amount of alcohol, film yourself doing it, post the evidence on social media, and then issue the same challenge to three friends. The name of the game comes from the British English expression "to neck a drink" (Americans would call it "chugging").
The stunts, meanwhile, can get elaborate:
The quick popularity — and very existence — of neknomination pages in France is linked to wider concern about the changing drinking habits among youth here. In a country that prides itself on its wine culture and deeply engrained relationship with alcohol, binge drinking is a growing and worrying phenomenon.
A year ago, the French Society for the Study of Alcohol released figures showing that alcohol abuse is now the cause of 400,000 hospital admissions a year — a 30 percent rise over the prior three years. According to 2011 statistics from the French Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction, 53 percent of 17 year olds reported having engaged in binge-drinking (consuming five or more drinks in one sitting) during the previous month.
The National Institute for Health and Education says alcohol is the cause of 45,000 deaths in France every year. The institute has been running a campaign warning of the risks associated with binging — called "BoireTrop," meaning "drink too much" — since 2008.
Health officials have expressed concerns about the new online drinking fad, citing several deaths in the UK linked to the game. The latest took place in Notthingham, England, after Bradley Eames, 20, filmed himself drinking the equivalent of thirty shots of gin in two minutes. France's National Association for Prevention of Alcoholism and Addiction is reportedly considering criminalizing the game in France.
The neknomination craze is thought to have originated in Australia, before spreading to New Zealand, Ireland, Great Britain, and France. Some reports say it's catching on in the U.S., too. Facebook has so far rejected calls for neknomination pages to be shut down.
In one video posted to a French page, a stoic teen looks into the camera and accepts his "nomination." He then fills a glass with vodka and orange juice, downs it in several swallows, and nominates three friends to follow suit. In another post, a group of teenagers gathers in a hallway, where they pour shots and down them together. One smiling young man drinks his cocktail of pastis and toilet water — yes, actual toilet water — while sitting on the commode. And another mixes a drink of about a dozen liquors and his own urine.
Tellingly, France's language police have even approved a native phrase for the practice of binge drinking. "Beuverie express," literally "fast drinking," entered the official French lexicon last July after approval by the General Commission of Terminology and Neology, a government group designed to protect the French language from being overtaken by foreign words and phrases. The commission defined the new term as the "massive consumption of alcohol, usually as part of a group, designed to cause intoxication in a minimum amount of time."
This is not reassuring news for doctors, parents, and health officials worried about the increasingly reckless — and seemingly contagious — drinking habits of French teenagers and young adults.
Roselyne Bachelot, former French minister of health, youth affairs, and sports, has made combating alcohol abuse one of her policy priorities, identifying open-bar parties and binge drinking as major problems among youth. Some cities are already taking action. Lyon has banned the sale of alcohol after 10 p.m.. and in La Rochelle it is now illegal to drink in public areas.
But neknomination in France has some vocal opponents among French youth, too.
Julien Voinson, a young photographer in Bordeaux, refused to accept the neknomination challenge he received last month. Instead, he countered with a video of himself offering a meal of 10 hamburgers and two bottles of water to a group of homeless people. He then challenged three friends to follow his lead, calling it "smart nomination." At least one friend responded by posting a video of himself giving change to a homeless person, offering a meal to a woman on the street, and donating clothing.
The trend of burger-giving caught on after his Feb. 12 video was shared hundreds of thousands of times. "The goal, which was to show an alternative to neknomination, worked," Voinson said in a phone interview this month.
A general solidarity group against the practice has coalesced on Facebook's "Ban Neknomination" page, which has attracted 28,000 followers since it launched in February.
Voinson said he has received messages of thanks from followers who say they are relieved and inspired to have an alternative to the peer pressure of binge drinking. "It's a shame that it's spread like it has," he says of neknomination. "It's not good values and it's a dangerous phenomenon."
Voinson, 23, considers his generation one prone to excess. "Today's generation likes to party," he says.
But he hopes to find as least as many young people who would rather do "something smart."
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