‘It’s one rule for French and one for foreigners’

The ski season in the French Alps is drawing to a bitter end for a British ski firm boss, who has accused the French authorities of "outrageous protectionism" as the so-called piste wars over instructors' right to work rumbles on.

'It's one rule for French and one for foreigners'
Photo: Simon Butler Skiing

A British ski instructor in the Alps has slammed French authorities for what he claims is a blatant ploy “to protect” the jobs of French ski instructors at the expense of foreign ones.

Simon Butler, who runs Simon Butler Skiing in the resort of Megève, was left furious after one of his instructors was arrested by French police earlier this month accused of giving skiing lessons without the necessary licence.

The move by the police was seen as an escalation in what has been dubbed the “piste wars” between foreign instructors working for private companies and French instructors working for the French Ski School (Ecole Ski Francaise, ESF).

Mr Butler is unhappy that lower qualified instructors are allowed to be employed as “trainees” (stagiares) at the ESF, but not at private companies like his and claims he is being driven off the slopes in a crackdown by French authorities.

“This is just protectionism, pure and simple,” Mr Butler told The Local. “It’s one rule for the French and one for everyone else.”

“They are simply not prepared to listen to any other point of view. They just want us stopped so that our clients go to the ESF instead.”

Foreign guides or instructors, known as "ski hosts", are a popular service among the thousands of Anglophones who ski in France every year and an alternative to ESF.

However under French rules instructors who want to give skiing lessons on the slopes of the Alps must be qualified up to the equivalent of Level 4 of the International Ski Teacher Diploma (ISTD).

To get the French equivalent would involve instructors passing a downhill "speed test", which Butler says is both dangerous and completely unnecessary.

“My instructors haven’t got this and they won’t get it. One of them who was training for it broke his leg so badly that he’ll walk with a limp for the rest of his life,” Butler said.

"It has no relevance at all to what makes a good ski instructor."

Tensions came to a head when his instructor Alex Casey was arrested on the slopes accused of teaching a lesson. The arrest sparked anger among the skiing community in Megève with around 100 people turning out to protest outside the police station.

Casey risks three months in jail if found guilty of teaching without a licence. Casey, Butler and another instructor Mark Gibbs have all been handed a summons to appear before a French court in June.

Butler's company is not the only British firm in the Alps to run into hot water with the French authorities.

Earlier this year a court in Albertville fined a British tour operator Le Ski more than €26,000 for employing unlicensed British ski resort guides and paying them below the minimum wage. The court also ordered the director of the Yorkshire-based firm, Nick Morgan, to pay €9,000 in damages to France's SNMSF ski instructors union and its training facility.

Butler says the bitter end to this year’s ski season has left him thinking of packing up and heading back to the UK, which he says would have a detrimental effect on the local community.

“We have spent millions of euros in this village. Everyone loves us here. The ski shops and even the mayor are very upset about this,” Butler said.

French police have denied Mr Butler's claims they are carrying out a crackdown against foreign ski instructors.

The Local put Mr Butler’s arguments to the relevant local authority – the prefecture of Haute Savoie in Annecy, but they declined to comment saying they "did not have the right".

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Tourism minister: Book your French ski holiday now

France’s ski resorts will be open for business this winter, tourism minister Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne has promised - but no decision has yet been taken on whether a health pass will be required to use ski lifts.

Skiers at a French Alpine resort
Photo: Philippe Desmazes / AFP

“This winter, it’s open, the resorts are open,” Lemoyne told France 2’s 4 Vérités programme.

“Compared to last year, we have the vaccine,” he said, adding that he would “invite those who have not yet done so to [book], because … there will soon be no more room.”

And he promised an answer ‘in the next few days’ to the question of whether health passes would be required for winter holidaymakers to use ski lifts. “Discussions are underway with the professionals,” he said.

The stakes are high: the closure of ski lifts last winter cost manufacturers and ski shops nearly a billion euros. 

This year ski lifts will remain open, but a health pass may be necessary to access them. The health pass is already compulsory for après ski activities such as visits to bars, cafés and restaurants.

COMPARE The Covid rules in place at ski resorts around Europe

Many town halls and communities which depend on winter sports have found it difficult or impossible to make ends meet.

“It’s time for the French mountains to revive,” Lemoyne said, pointing to the fact that the government has provided “more than €6 billion” in aid to the sector.

Winter tourism professionals, however, have said that they are struggling to recruit for the winter season.

“Restaurant and bars are very affected,” by the recruitment crisis, one expert told Franceinfo, blaming a lack of urgency from authorities towards the winter holiday industry.

“We are all asking ourselves what we should do tomorrow to find full employment in the resort,” the expert added.

Post-Brexit visa and work permit rules mean that ski businesses have found it difficult to recruit Brits for short-term, seasonal positions.