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Piste Off – The English French Ski Instructor Debate

By Chloe Hardy

It’s been subject of controversy in recent months. People have lost jobs. People have been arrested. They’ve even gone to court.

You know what I’m talking about; the age old problem of being a ski instructor in France.

In this modern day and age, most instructors can get by in most countries with a Level Two instructor qualification, and anything above that will have you teaching more advanced skiers and snowboarders and making more money for your troubles.

Not in France, though.

Last year French police went in, all guns blazing (literally) to arrest ski instructor and business owner Simon Butler, who was deemed to be teaching in France without the proper qualifications, as well as employing underqualified instructors. The following media frenzy attributed the incident to a longstanding rivalry between the ‘frogs’ and the ‘roastbeefs’ after Butler’s claims that he had been unnecessarily treated ‘like a criminal’ by the French police.

In the end he was fined €30k and faced 200 days jail time, as well as being told by a judge that he might like to try working in Switzerland, where the qualification level is much lower. Ouch.


So just what does it take to teach skiing and snowboarding in France?

As well as having to achieve the top instructing qualification for your country, you also need to apply for a Carte Proffessionelle – a document that states you’re legally allowed to teach in France. It’s also compulsory to complete a speed test for skiers, or get a certain amount of FIS (Federation International du Ski) points for snowboarders. Skiers need to complete a GS course in 18% (24% for women) of the time of a world championship racer, and snowboarders need to compete in FIS organised competitions to gain enough points through either racing or freestyle to prove their ability. Phew.

The 2012/13 winter also saw the French authorities crack down on unqualified ski guides, in particular chalet hosts who show guests around the pistes as a holiday extra and advise them on the best places to go for a hot chocolate. Following a highly public and frequently appealed case in France, most holidaymakers are now required to pay up to €350 a day for a fully qualified guide to show them around the trails, and likely feel obliged to buy them lunch. The case also saw a number of holiday-company employees lose their jobs, and struck fear into the hearts of  British mountain dwellers; could it be illegal to show your grandparents to your favourite restaurant in the next resort?

It’s estimated that there are currently 350 instructors working illegally in France, and many more guiding; Butler’s arrest (whether intentionally making an example of him or not) shows that the French authorities are cracking the whip on this kind of behaviour. However, could these restrictions also put off potential new instructors from wanting to teach in France? And could this, in turn affect France’s winter tourism industry?

All these events pose the question to French snowsports authorities:

Why so serious? Is it necessary for instructors to pass gruelling technical exams, become semi professional racers, as well as off piste and touring guides? And is it worth it, to go through years of expensive and stressful training to spend six hours a day teaching tearful under-fives how to do a pizza on the nursery slope?

Well, the short answer is actually yes. The French authorities claim that everyone needs to be this qualified in order to provide the highest level of safety, even if they’re just showing you to the nearest hot chocolate station. But at least then we know that people who take the time to get the proper qualifications are in it for the long haul; teaching skiing and snowboarding is their career and their passion, not just a gap yah fad or a mid-life crisis.


But there are also a number of cultural factors to think about, especially when it comes to teaching young kids. France’s largest ski school, the ESF (Ecole du Ski Francais), claims that around 70% of its pupils are under fourteen years old. As they cater to many kids who grow up in the mountains, it’s really important to make sure they know how to be safe. Compare this to BASI (British Association of Snowsports Instructors) run schools, who state that their portion of junior clients is around 30%. Many French kids are also part of local ski clubs, and compete in race leagues, which could explain why the French qualification system, the Moniteur du Ski, is focused largely on racing and technical ability. The BASI qualification system is geared around teaching and making sure clients are having fun, in order to keep them interested in the sport. So, basically, we’re seeing skiing being taught as a lifestyle compared to a recreational pastime.

The ESF has around 250 schools and around 17,000 instructors, but there are also a number of smaller, British run ski and snowboard schools throughout the Portes du Soleil who, thankfully, have all taken the time to submit the correct paperwork and employ fully qualified instructors. This means that the Simon Butler case hasn’t set things back for international instructors – the moral of his story is that as long as you obey the laws of the country you are in, you will eventually reap the rewards.


But let’s not forget about guiding. Now that it’s illegal to guide unqualified, could unnecessary strain be put on ski schools to pick up the slack? And how will instructors define the line between teaching and just showing people around the mountain? I suppose we’ll just have to wait and see. The court’s decision to ban guiding is currently being appealed by a number of holiday companies – but don’t throw your piste maps away just yet.

Ian McKeller, Director at Avoriaz Alpine Ski School

“We have a mixture of British and French instructors so can cater to both nationalities; although every instructor has a different teaching style so nationality doesn’t play a role. Being a smaller ski school we can offer you a more personal service, but that is not to say that larger schools like the ESF are bad. With regards to the qualification level in France, those who wish to commit will achieve. Like any profession you have to work hard to reap the rewards.”

Graham Bell, Ski Sunday presenter

“I fully support the fact that you need to be fully qualified if you’re going to instruct and obey the qualification process in place for the country you intend to work in. BASI worked very hard to establish a pathway to become qualified. It’s only fair that you need to be qualified. I’m less convinced about the hosting regulations. It’s going to hurt the industry because it’s very obvious those guys aren’t instructors. There’s a big difference between skiing socially with a guide and trying to teach people to ski and improve their technique. No-one’s ever said ski guides and hosts are instructors.”



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