Sunday, 3 March 2013

ESF and skiing disputes

Each winter there are various disputes between the French authorities and the British ski companies that set up business out here in the ski resorts. Last winter, it was the question of whether British-owned and registered companies should be forced to pay their 'saisonnaires' the French minimum wage and whether the employees should be put under French working contracts. This winter however, it's a whole different ball game and the French authorities have actually made a decision. As of this year, ski hosting by British guides, who do not have a diploma, is banned.

As to be expected, there is a whole variety of opinions, resulting in mainly a British vs French war of words - in particular against ESF (Ecole du Ski Français) who started the legal process against a British company, Le Ski, who operate out of les Trois Vallées. Depending on which language you speak and whether you read French or British speaking newspapers, the viewpoints are clear. 

This article by The Telegraph shows the general opinion of the UK against ESF and the French courts. From the UK viewpoint, ski hosting is a traditional part of a holiday, poses no danger to the tourists and as The Telegraph says, it in fact lowers the risks of 'testosterone-ridden' tourists hurling themselves off black slopes which they are not good enough to do. The Telegraph, among others, also argues that ski hosting brings business to the local restaurants and bars and do little but show the tourists around the slopes without 'the need to look at piste maps every five minutes'. 

Logging onto 'Les Pulls Rouges' Facebook page (a.k.a the Facebook page of ESF) and it is clear to see, this opinion could not be further from what the French think. Comments like 'it's not enough' show how the French feel towards their pistes, their livelihoods and the possible 'protectionism' that the British are currently accusing them of.

However, to a certain extent, I have to admit that I agree with the French. Having lived here for over a year, I feel like I have been well accepted as a local in la Plagne. I understand what it means to ski well and the education that is involved in teaching children how to behave on the pistes. I have learnt that the English 'I ski well' is a very different definition to the French 'I ski well'. 

And that is the difference. Taking the children out in groups last year - and yes, I do have a diploma - it is clear to see that the education we are given is very different to that given to the local children and the ESF instructors of the future. Not only is it perfecting your technique, but it is a question of learning 'piste etiquette'  - that at no time should you stop in the middle of the piste, before stopping, make sure you can be seen by anyone skiing down the piste, before skiing off, you look behind you to make sure no one is there etc. etc. I would regularly stop on the pistes with the kids, not to correct them, as I do not have an instructing diploma, but to ask them questions about what they saw on the piste - why are the poles on the left have a bigger fluorescent stripe than those on the right, why we didn't stop on that corner up there, why I ask them to always stop downhill from me in a straight line.. you get the picture.

For this reason, I agree with ESF. In ski resorts and with the ESF, there is a standard of safety that is always assured. Before, anyone could take a group of tourists out with them, as long as their tour operator had said they could. And that's the problem, you may be able to ski as well, but as an English person who has only ever skiied with your family once/twice a year, can you really start taking responsibility for a large group of tourists? Whilst you are not instructing them, the group is always going to look to you as the more experienced member - stopping where you stop, going the speed you go and trusting you on the difficulty of a certain piste. If you have no scale of what is good and what isn't, how do you know that this red is not too difficult for that person who is still snow-ploughing down the pistes behind you?

 Arguably, the diploma I hold allows me to do exactly what ski hosts do - I'm allowed to take groups of children out onto the pistes, I can take them down pistes according to their level but I'm not allowed to give them a word of instruction. But the difference between me and a ski host? The ESF have seen me ski, agreed that my technique is good enough to take these children out and they have taught me how to evaluate the level of someone within a piste, as well as teaching me all and everything I need to know about 'piste etiquette' whilst skiing with a large group.

Even so, we had problems. Last year, several of our groups got stopped by the police on the slopes. Whilst I hold a diploma, I never carried a piece of paper proving it. Each time one of our groups were stopped, we were asked to show our papers, something which none of us carried. The police would therefore stop us, take our name, our addresses and the name of the school, with the promise of checking up on us. Towards the end of the season, each time we went out with the children we were given a piece of paper confirming we were covered and with the school's details on it. It is not only the British that the police and the ESF want to target but locals too, surely this could just be seen as a question of safety?

I do, however, understand how this law could be seen 'protectionist'. In recent years, the ESF have tried to stamp out competition in resorts and remain the number one choice for skiing. Surely they could offer a similar diploma to the one I possess? Why is it a point-blank no? I'll admit, for a lot of tourists, ski hosting is a great way to discover the pistes, as well as the local bars and restaurants.

However, surely if ESF want to be protectionist, they would not go after a service which is not directly in competition with them? Is it not just a question of safety? I guess time will tell...

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