As one season ends and tour operators prepare for another, the French authorities appear to be sharpening the guillotine for any rosbif who dares to challenge their autocratic rules on ski hosting.
Latest victim of an increasing reviled squad of mountain gendarmes is the Ski Club of Great Britain whose leaders take parties of members both on and off-piste in a wide range of resorts. The gendarmes – not be confused with local resort coppers who mainly don’t give a damn about this – are based in Modane in the Maurienne Valley. They spend the winter roving around French resorts, on the lookout for anyone who might be vaguely considered to be in breach of Article 212-1 of the French Code du Sport.
This controversial edict, which appears to have no standing in European law, states that anyone leading or guiding or instructing for remuneration must have the full French ski teaching qualification. Of course, we all want ski instructors to be qualified, but you really don’t need a qualification to point out the best runs and the best lunch spots – especially if you are not teaching.
Who the law applies to is, of course, a nonsense. It all depends on how you define remuneration. If I owned a chalet, invited you to stay for the weekend and showed you around the pistes and mountain restaurants of my home resort, would I be in breach of the law? Well, yes, if you take me out to lunch or dinner and even give me a gift for having you to stay. I guess that could be construed as remuneration.
This brings us on to the Ski Club of Great Britain. Two of their leaders have been questioned by the gendarmes this winter – most recently earlier this month in Val d’Isere when a leader was skiing on piste with members. The Club has now been ordered to appear before an examining magistrate in Albertville in September to explain the actions of their leaders in relation to Article 212-1.
The Ski Club argues that its leaders are unpaid volunteers and therefore exempt. However, they do normally receive free accommodation, free lift passes, and some contribution towards their travel expenses. The Club may well have a problem persuading already biased officials in Albertville – and no doubt these will be supported by the ESF – that this is not remuneration.
Ski leading is the Ski Club’s raison d’être, and the implications of a court case that finds against the club could be devastating for its future activities in French resorts. Personally, I absolutely support their right to host members on-piste – but not away from marked and patrolled runs unless the leader has the necessary internationally-recognised qualifications.
First to fall foul officially of the snatch squad was Hudderfield-based tour operator Le Ski. Their ski hosts had been taking guests around the Three Valleys for 30 years, until one of them was stopped last winter. After he volunteered for further questioning the company was charged with breaking the law.
Amazingly, for reasons only known to their union leaders in Grenoble, the ESF immediately jumped on the bandwagon. They demanded – and got – 5,000€ in damages overall and a further 4,000€ in damages for lost business in the Meribel Valley (yes, what business? And yes, you are correct – Le Ski isn’t based in Meribel, but in Courchevel 1650), and ESF costs of 1,500€. The company was also fined 15,000€.
It would appear that the ESF management has entirely lost the plot. Ski schools and individual instructors across France are bewildered by their involvement. Inevitably there’s been a boycott by British tour operators and skiers in general. The loss of business and goodwill has been huge. In a single stroke the ESF threw away 10 years of work to rehabilitate its image as the caring ski school, and the famous red uniform has become a symbol of vilification.
It’s worth noting that, prior to the case, Le Ski hosts met their guests each morning outside the ESF office in Courchevel 1650. They did this for 30 years without complaint.
The case, backed by a dozen British tour operators, has gone to appeal. The next hearing is in Chambery in a couple of weeks’ time – but don’t hold out any hopes for an immediate resolution. The case seems likely to meander on – possibly to the High Court in Paris – before reaching the European Court in Strasbourg. The consortium of tour operators is confident that the conviction will be overturned there.
No, I haven’t mentioned British ski instructor Simon Butler being arrested on a chair-lift and thrown into jail in Megeve. That’s an entirely separate can of worms that is utterly unrelated to the ski hosting issue.
The only common factor between Le Ski, the Ski Club, and Simon Butler appears to the French desire to ignorantly bundle them all into the same tumbril and feed them to Madame Guillotine.
Sometimes the French, love them or loathe them, can be a real pain in the neck.
For more on the subject, see also our feature Is this the End of Ski Hosting in France?