Traditional ski guiding by UK tour operators is over – and it won’t be coming back, as we had hoped, thanks largely to Brexit.
As expected, the French supreme court sitting in Paris this week rejected an appeal by Huddersfield-based chalet company Le Ski against its 2014 conviction for infringements of the controversial French sports code.
This states that anyone leading a group of skiers, and being paid to do, so must be qualified. What’s more, for reasons best-known to their management in Grenoble, the ESF jumped on the bandwagon and supported the state prosecution.
In the light of our forthcoming departure from the EU, Le Ski MD, Nick Morgan, and the consortium of a dozen tour operators supporting him, have taken the painful decision not to try to pursue the case to the European Court in Luxembourg.
Early casualty of Brexit
Prior to the referendum, lawyers agreed that the court would almost certainly rule in favour of Le Ski, and the consortium includes Crystal and Inghams. But Nick Morgan concedes that there’s little point in asking for a European ruling because we are leaving the EU, and the case may not even be heard before our departure.
He said that he was under no illusion: “Two crucial elements contributed hugely to the supreme court’s decision:
1 Looming Brexit – why should the French judiciary uphold our pleas based on EU law or refer the matter to the European Court, as clearly requested, when our country voted to leave the EU?
2 The current political and electoral climate in France shows that anti-European parties have the sympathy of almost half of the electorate.
This decision, and its consequences for British skiers in Europe, is yet another result of the UK’s vote on June 23, 2016.”
He added: “We welcome the partial annulment of the Chambéry 2014 appeal judgement. The case is sent back to the Chambéry court of appeals, as one of the offences included in the prosecution was repealed. The original fine set by the Albertville court will now have to be reassessed.”
Other UK companies, including the Ski Club of Great Britain, that have been pursued by the French authorities are expected to also throw in the towel.
What was an integral part of any chalet holiday each winter for tens of thousands of skiers is now relegated to the history books of our sport as firmly as leather boots, cable bindings and stem-christies.
The seemingly benign practise of showing guests around the slopes at the start of their holiday, not teaching but merely pointing out the best runs and the best restaurants, is now officially illegal in France and is likely to remain so forever.
What’s clearly daft to us rosbifs is that demonstrably this is a case of one law for the French and another for us. Civil servants, teachers, soldiers, and volunteers are exempt…in as long as they are French.
In plain anglais, what this means is that if you’re a maths teacher from Calais or Rouen who’s never previously been up a mountain in your life, you are free to take a whole group of kids or adults skiing whenever you like. But if you’re an experienced UK skier – perhaps an ex-racer or a coach – who’s spent seasons in the Alps, you can’t. You’re breaking the law and liable to arrest, prosecution, and a heavy fine or even imprisonment.
Ironically, Article 212-1 of the French Code du Sport is not aimed at tour operator ski hosts, but at unqualified ‘black’ instructors who offer ski lessons across the Alps. Away from its Grenoble union headquarters, most ESF instructors don’t care a jot about ski hosting. They recognise that the hosts are not teaching and that they are not taking work away from them.
As Nick Morgan points out, for more than a quarter of a century his hosts and guests assembled each morning outside the ESF office in Courchevel 1650 without a murmur of discontent.
At huge expense the row has rumbled on through the courts with the prosecution inexplicably supported by the ESF. 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€.
Lost in translation
At the heart of the whole sorry business is a hit squad of gendarmes – not be confused with the usually benign resort coppers – 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 the law.
A ‘guide’ to them is always a ‘guide de haute montagne’ and they have no understanding of the very British concept of a chalet party and ski host.
Tour operator ski hosting, along with the unconnected subject of French recognition and acceptance of foreign ski instructor qualifications, have led to frequent and often heated confrontations over the past 20 years. You can’t help but worry that – in skiing at least – our departure from the EU will test the entente cordiale to its limits.