French children risk lives in strangling game
Nicolas Cochet, 14, had gone to bed early in order to get plenty of sleep for the next day. He had even ironed his clothes and left them in a neat pile in the living room.
They were in the same place at 6.20 the next morning when his mother found him. He was still dangling by the judo belt with which he had accidentally strangled himself to death.
Nicolas was one of a growing number of French victims of le jeu du foulard, or "the scarf game". The practice involves denying the brain oxygen through voluntary strangulation. It often leaves no visible mark.
Typically, in the presence of a group of friends, a child will hold their breath, before strangling themselves, often with a scarf or chord of some sort, or sometimes with their own bare hands. The child then passes out and descends into convulsions, which, according to Nicolas' mother, Françoise Cochet "amuse the group".
The French education minister, Xavier Darcos, has now ordered an information campaign to raise awareness of the dangers of the "game". Mme Cochet, founder of a French support group, Apeas (the Association of Parents of Child Victims of Strangulation) has created an information pack to explain to parents and children that "it is not a game at all".
Even seven years after her 14-year-old son's death, Mme Cochet finds it difficult to talk about the cheeky-looking teenage boy in the photograph on her living-room wall. She has devoted her life to trying to prevent other parents from suffering the same grief.
Children as young as seven years old are now trying it in groups, she said. Often, they recount their "experience" to their friends when they come round. More worrying and deadly, though, is when it is tried alone. Most cases of death or hospitalisation recorded are from when a child has tried to relive the experience in their bedroom.
Peer pressure plays a huge part. It is a common misconception that the ritual is always sexual. It is another that it only affects so-called "problem children". It has even been mistaken, in the past, for suicide or parental incompetence.
Among the countries where the problem is considered to be most serious are the US, Canada and Germany. Apeas has numerous contacts in all of these but none in Britain. Far from being an encouraging sign that the problem is not a British one, the worry is that it is simply not being recognised.
Official studies have only recently been carried out in France, considered to be one of the worst-hit countries, and it has been a long fight for Apeas to bring about any recognition of the practice.
A study by the polling organisation, Ipsos, found that few parents knew what the custom involved. However, the research showed that around 1.5 million French people had "given in to the game" as children.