Guiding in France. War in the mountains?

by
August 4, 2014

News broke yesterday on a long standing issue which has been bubbling away for companies guiding in the French Alps. Published in the Telegraph, under the headline “British mountain biking instructor faces jail in France over work ban” , it’s fair to say that the secret battle of  mountain bike guides in the French mountains has gone public.

Alistair Jamieson, of Trail Addiction, has decided to take on French authorities over the current insistence that UK qualified guides need to take french guiding qualifications in order to work as guides.

As reported by the Telegraph:

“A letter from the Prefet de la Savoie states Mr Jamieson has failed to demonstrate he has sufficient experience.

It states: “I forbid you formally to exercise the profession of teacher, coach or guide of mountain biking. Remember that an offence exposes you to prosecutions of up to one year imprisonment and €15,000 fine.”

“I forbid you formally to exercise the profession of teacher, coach or guide of mountain biking. Remember that an offence exposes you to prosecutions of up to one year imprisonment and €15,000 fine.” 

Trail Addiction, however have decided to come out fighting rather than accept the threat of legal action, as stated on their website:

“As it happens, in all our 13 years, we have always operated under the shadow of this apparent guiding ban, with the constant ‘threat’ of fines and other restrictions which come only from a very specific regulatory arm of the national French government.

All that has changed today, is that I have finally decided to stand up to this preposterous French bullying – on behalf of myself, and all outdoor sports professionals qualified in Europe and currently working in France. I am today launching a legal challenge in France, and if necessary, to pursue it to European court. My aim is to end this absurdity once and for all.

According to detailed, specialist legal advice that we have been taking over the past 3 years, the refusal to recognise our Guiding Qualifications and prior professional experience is completely illegal under European Law (and even France’s own labour laws) – not to mention against one the founding principles of the European Union itself (Article 2005/36 – the Free Movement of Professionals within Europe).

We hope that by raising the profile of these issues into the public eye, and by joining forces with a handful of outdoor professionals also brave enough to stand up to the French and ‘go public’ – creating political pressure and bringing our legal challenge to the attention of the politicians who have the power influence the French Administration into ceasing its illegal bullying.”

It’s a high risk strategy and whether this is the way to address the issue remains to be seen.

Discussed on our forum here and on Trail Addiction’s website here.

We’re currently working on a follow up to this so watch out for Part Two.

Here’s the background to this case, first published in Issue 82…

The secret battle of the mountain bike guides in the French mountains.

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Arrests, threats and European court proceedings aren’t what comes to mind when you think of mountain bike holidays,

but that’s just what’s going on behind the scenes in the French Alps and Pyrenees as qualified British guides fight with the authorities and their Gallic counterparts to gain equal rights, respect and work.

Given his experiences with the French authorities, you might think Gareth Jefferies would be a bitter man. Jefferies has the unenviable record of becoming one of the first British mountain bike guides to be arrested in France for simply attempting to do his job, albeit operating in what, at the time, was a legal grey area.

His case dates back about six years when he was running Endlessride, a reasonably successful guiding company he set up in Morzine in 2000. Although tensions had been rising between a handful of French guides and British incomers, Jefferies had no idea the situation had so badly deteriorated.

“Endlessride was tolerated because we brought a lot of custom in and we lived and paid taxes [in Morzine],” he says. “I didn’t realise that we were only tolerated up to a point. The French guides were all muttering between themselves about our British qualifications.”

Both he and staff at the firm, were, in hindsight and by his own admission, “skating on fairly thin ice”, but he was not expecting what followed. “I thought if we were stopped I’d be OK, as I had the equivalent British qualification and they’d just give me a ticking off,” he says.

Guides in handcuffs.

Instead came the arrest of guide Sian Hughes and himself and a subsequent prosecution for failing to register as guides with the relevant authority, in this case a branch of the French state then called the Direction Départementale de Jeunesse et Sport (now the Direction Départementale de la Cohésion Sociale or DDCS). Although the specific law is set at national level, it is applied more locally by the French départements, the French equivalent of the UK’s county councils.

The irony in this is that Jefferies was qualified. He had attained both an International Mountain Leader (IML) award – a costly and challenging walking qualification – and on top of that, had a mountain bike guiding qualification. The problem was that at the time, this was not recognised by the authorities. In local parlance, his qualifications did not have équivalence with a French mountain bike guiding award and, therefore, he could not acquire the work permit, or carte professionnelle, required to carry out the business of a mountain bike guide.

But despite all this, he remains sanguine about what happened. “It’s protectionism, but don’t take that as a dirty word.

“It’s not about keeping foreigners out, it’s keeping the jobs difficult to do. If you want to be an MTB guide then you need to be properly qualified. The French do this throughout their economy; it’s not just in the mountains – tilers or plumbers have to be qualified, for instance. We find that difficult to understand, everything is quite so liberal in the UK that we can do anything we like,” he says.

What it has meant, however, is a reduction in the amount of guiding available in the Portes du Soleil and Haute-Savoie. After his run-in with the law, Jefferies stopped offering guided holidays, instead providing guests with maps or GPS files. But this proved unsustainable in the long run and he eventually quit.

Interestingly, neither of the company’s successor firms – first Flowmtb and now RideMorzine – offer guiding as a part of the holiday package (see ‘RideMorzine’ sidebar). RideMorzine’s website says that it will happily arrange guiding – through Jefferies, for instance – but do not provide it themselves. Phil Smith, who runs the company, says: “It only worked the old way by employing someone UK-qualified to guide on seasonal wages. If I had the qualification and offered guiding I’d have to put my prices up, which would then make me uncompetitive.”

Since the furore and subsequent decision to exit the holiday business, Jefferies has operated as a freelance guide in the area, having persuaded the French to accept the IML with an additional mountain bike qualification – in his case, the Scottish Mountain Bike Leader Award (SMBLA) – as sufficiently robust.

To some extent this now serves as a benchmark in France for guides without a specific French qualification. DDCS has consistently refused to recognise UK awards, such as the SMBLA, as possessing parity with its national standards like the ludicrously titled ‘brevet professionnel de la jeunesse, de l’éducation populaire et du sport, activities du cyclisme (mention VTT)’. Instead, UK guides have been pushed down the IML-plus route.

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Trouble out of the valley.

The problem, however, has not been confined to the Portes du Soleil.

Like ripples in a pond, the issue has spread outwards. Last summer it was the turn of companies in the nearby Savoie département to suffer the close attentions of the authorities. Previously untouched outfits in and around Bourg-St-Maurice – think BikeVillage, trailAddiction and The White Room to name but three – were faced with a familiar crackdown by the DDCS.

Steve McDonald, who runs St Foy-based White Room, remembers last summer’s events. “The French authorities were pulling people over at the bottom of chairlifts and asking to see their papers. They knew exactly who they were looking for, including us. They probably expected to throw the book at us.

“They knew who they were looking for – me, personally. They knew White Room and they knew a few things about us, including the fact that we had some gaps in our paperwork, and they knew all this out on the mountain.”

However, McDonald, who holds an IML and SMBLA, proudly displaying the logos of both on the firm’s website, was fully registered with the DDCS. Nonetheless, he still received a letter from them pointing out a handful of bureaucratic anomalies that required rectification and listing the penalties that could follow if they were not sorted. “It was a fairly intimidating process and that was when we were fully legit,” McDonald remembers.

Despite this, McDonald largely agrees with the French stance and the country’s take on the role of a bike guide. “The job of sports instructor in France is a highly regulated profession like a doctor, a lawyer or whatever, and that applies whether you want to teach mountain biking, skiing or ping-pong,” he says. “You have to have the right qualifications and the right bits of paper to call yourself a sports instructor. All they ask is that we match what their guys do.”

He also understands the potential for conflict with local guides. “For the French guys it’s their livelihood and they need to make a living out of it. British guys doing it as a gap year or a holiday job don’t care if they are being paid very little or even nothing at all. It puts a few noses out of joint.”

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Protectionism or quality assurance?

But McDonald’s relatively generous view of the French isn’t shared by everyone in the area.

Sam Morris has run Landry-based BikeVillage since 2001 and has an alternative take on the French attitude. “It’s all about protectionism, not quality assurance. The whole process is designed to keep foreign workers out,” he says.

Morris, like many others, has the SMBLA qualification, and has been operating in the grey area made possible by the French administrative structure. However, in the light of last summer’s crackdown, he has been forced to consider how to become fully legal – whether to take the IML route or the French brevet professionnel.

But he rejected the IML he says, “just as a point of principle. I didn’t want to go and do a walking qualification with lots of rope and snow work, just to work as a mountain bike leader”.

He says he respects the IML as a fantastic qualification, but questions its relevance to mountain biking, not least that a quirk in the French rules means that an IML holder, who has barely ridden a mountain bike before, could undertake a short-duration cycling qualification and thus be declared fit to take groups out. “All that reflects is that you are a walking leader who can do a bit of MTB guiding as well,” he notes.

This, then, left the brevet professionnel, potentially 16 weeks’ worth of tuition at an all-in cost of €10,000 (£8,410). Morris started the programme, but it quickly became apparent to him that it was likely to be a waste of effort and he dropped out.

“I spent years thinking the French course was more advanced [than the UK equivalent] but it’s much more basic with lots of business studies and IT tacked on to it. I’m not spending all that time and money for a qualification that’s worse than the one I already have.”

And Morris believes there’s further evidence that the French position is more about protecting local jobs than maintaining standards. He points to the fact that a student who has never previously ridden a mountain bike could, having completed the first five weeks of the brevet professionnel, earn money by taking groups out unaccompanied having attained the level of stagiaire, or trainee guide.

“The French award is all about protecting people’s incomes,” he argues. “There’s nothing wrong with that but I wish they had a bit more focus on standards too.”

So instead of undertaking either the IML or the brevet, Morris is relying on the European Union – aided by the European Confederation of Outdoor Employers (ECOE), a Brussels-based pressure group – to force recognition of his existing SMBLA.

Two pieces of legislation form the cornerstone of his argument. First, directive 2005/36, which basically rules that a country cannot apply higher standards to other EU nationals seeking work in that state than they do to their own citizens. So, for instance, the French cannot require a British guide to obtain a more comprehensive qualification than needed by a French guide, says Jean-Yves Lapeyrère, Secretary of the ECOE (see ‘The ECOE’ sidebar).

Second, and aiding application of the first piece of legislation, is the European Qualifications Framework (EQF). Launched in 2008 and slowly rolled out across the continent, the EQF aims to ensure a common grading structure for education standards throughout the EU. So, for instance, an Italian company looking to recruit a Swede will be able to relate the potential employee’s degree or diploma to those available locally. Handily enough, this also applies to the SMBLA.

Better still, it rates the SMBLA as possessing Level 5 on its 10-stage scale, one higher than the brevet professionnel, which only reaches Level 4.

And, says Lapeyrère, since 2009 the rules have been different across the EU. Non-nationals no longer have to prove they are allowed to work in a certain country, they simply they declare – based on a number of key documents such as a passport and qualifications – that they have the right to carry out paid employment. In other words, a country now has to prove a would-be guide isn’t qualified for the task, not the other way around. The whole concept of equivalence is thrown out, he adds.

No one wanted to be a test case.

Using this legal argument as his basis, Morris has sent his declaration to the DDCS requesting his carte professionnelle, claiming his qualification is of a higher standard than required by a French citizen. Although the outcome is still pending (the law requires a decision within four months, more or less) – and if refused will be aggressively appealed – if all goes to plan, it will finally create an easier route for UK-qualified guides to work in France.

“No-one wanted to be a test case because we were worried they’d turn us down, so we didn’t declare ourselves. But when push came to shove it ended up being me,” says Morris. He has additionally put in applications for three of his guides.

He’s been joined in this stance by fellow Bourg guiding outfit TrailAddiction. Ali Jamieson, one of the company’s directors, also has submissions in for about a dozen guides: all still pending.

Jamieson adds: “A successful outcome of this case will not only level the playing field for all European guides to work legally in France, but it will lead to a better provision of service for customers.

“The current situation works on the principle of monopoly, with anyone already on the inside being fully motivated to keep the system as it is in order to protect their own financial interests and customer base.

“Opening up the market will mean that everyone will have to compete on quality of service and value for money – and leave it to the customers themselves to choose exactly the kind of service that they really want to get.”

Morris adds: “In the long run hopefully it will be a good thing. No one will be able to get away with employing staff without a qualification. It’s brilliant for the industry – it’s not just the French that want to protect incomes and standards.”

French mentality.

Of course, UK guides who have put themselves through the IML process may take a different view. Ian Pendry runs his firm, Altitude Adventure, in Font Romeu in the Pyrénées Orientales département, far away from the pressure cooker of the Alps.

His opinion is that the French mentality towards attaining a qualification is markedly different to that in the UK. He says: “In France, people generally start doing an IML as part of their further education. They see it as part of the training to get a career. [The French] look on it as a part of joining a profession and feel they should be paid a decent amount for it to make your living. In the UK [guiding] is often viewed as a bit of a doss job for a couple of years.

“I believe in the validity of qualifications, the MBLA included. I don’t particularly like the idea that simply because someone can ride their bike quite quickly they can call themselves a guide. They allow companies to exploit them so they can ride their bike downhill all summer, but it doesn’t allow people whose profession it is to make a living out of it.”

Although by his own admission he has invested the thick-end of £5,000 in attaining his IML he says he has “no interest” in seeing the status quo maintained. But, he adds: “I didn’t see any other option to working legally in France.”

He sees the choice as very much black and white: either pick a guide who has “invested in being a professional” or “the young lad that wants a cushy summer caning people down a downhill course”.

The IML, he notes, also helps to future-proof your career, giving you other options when you can no longer act as a mountain bike guide. Pendry also questions whether the MBLA on its own is sufficient to prepare a guide to work in the high mountains. Although the Alps or Pyrenees are generally viewed as a relatively benign environment, a mobile phone signal, so vital for summoning help in an emergency, can quickly be lost.

“There are places where you can be in a lot of difficulty if something goes wrong and you are out of the ski areas,” he says. “The MBLA teaches you some things, but does it teach enough for the high environment in which you’re going to be working?” he asks.

Curiously enough, Pendry’s take on the MBLA is supported by one of the award’s training providers, CycleActive. Rich Barnard, CycleActive’s managing director, says: “Every set of mountains has their own rules and I can see what the French are driving at.

“I think [the MBLA] is a good base, but I can’t state for the record that it’s a good award for working at France at altitudes higher than those in the UK.”

That said, he offers a robust defence against the award’s detractors who suggest it is too easy to obtain, although this perception is hardly helped by the Scottish Cycling website which suggests that an SMBLA can be achieved in as little as six days. Although in the truest sense this is accurate – you need only undertake four training days with two more of assessment – this fails to mention the huge number of rides a would-be guide needs to have recorded, which could be as many as 80 in an extreme example. “To get that many logged rides is going to take you at least a year and a half, even if you are a keen mountain biker,” says Barnard.

He also points to the level of proficiency required by candidates, who must score the maximum marks in each award criterion. “If you can’t tell me your location as a six-figure grid reference with the right letters at the front of it how the hell are you going to be able to get out of an emergency in the mountains?” he asks.

It is also worth noting that the MBLA’s own training manual states, on page 15, that “the MBLA awards are currently valid anywhere in the UK and Europe”.

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The rules don’t apply to the French.

But for all the arguments over the merits of the IML-plus versus the MBLA on its own, the fact is that this rule does not apply to the French. If they undertake the 16-week brevet professionnel – which, remember, is rated as a less comprehensive course under the EQF structure than the SMBLA – they can work as a mountain bike guide. This apparently easy ride for the French is what most irks UK guides, and which also appears contrary to European law.

BikeVillage’s Morris reckons there should be less argument about the merits of the IML and SMBLA, seeing the two awards as virtually impossible to compare. To draw an extreme analogy, it would be like a bus driver being required to first qualify as an airline pilot before getting behind the wheel as both have similar jobs in passenger transport.

However, any change to the French rules reckons without the nation’s legendary stubbornness and self-interest. As Pendry notes: “Their attitude is that it’s a profession, therefore, you should be a professional and you should be charging a proper amount of money for what you are doing each day.

“That’s why they’ll maintain their stance until the cows come home.”

Of course, the EU may have other ideas…

RideMorzine.

Phil Smith, owner of RideMorzine, started out as a guide in France, initially employed by Gareth Jefferies and Endlessrides. He no longer guides, however, instead running a pair of chalets for cyclists in the centre of the French resort.

His situation is symptomatic of the fallout from Jefferies’ arrest, choosing to simply concentrate on running the holiday company rather than complicate matters with obtaining a hard-to-get qualification.

He explains his rationale: “If it was a case of going on a week’s course then, for sure, I’d do it, but it’s considerably harder to get than that and very expensive.

“The whole situation is a bit of a killer as I know some guests want the guiding, it does add to the experience. For me I’d prefer to stay legit and only employ France-legal guides, I just don’t want to be in a difficult situation should there be an incident.

“It’s worth me stating the obvious and saying this is a France-wide law that got enforced in Morzine. SMBLAs and the like are simply not recognised – it doesn’t make someone a guide out here.

“On a more positive note, the self-guiding seems to work really well. That’s to say, I provide route advice with maps. Some people seem to like to do their own thing without being shepherded around. The trail network is very well signposted out here and the paths well defined so navigation is simple. And the rise of the bike park has made it all a lot easier too – people love them, even those who describe themselves as cross-country riders and there’s no need for guiding in that instance.

“The one thing they don’t get is skills training, but other than that, people are not fussed about paying to be guided around when I can simply point them in the right direction.”

The EOEC

When you speak to Jean-Yves Lapeyrère, Secretary of the European Outdoor Employers Confederation (EOEC), his frustration with the French is all too evident.

Although mountain biking is his current battleground over employment rights, skiing is the industry that has seen most of the scrapping thus far. Hence, he is quick to describe the likes of the Ecole du Ski Français – an almost monopolistic business with a multimillion-euro annual turnover – as akin to the “mafia”.

He feels that the country’s national sporting associations or confederations have consistently pressured the French ministry of sports to safeguard their interests, whether or not this is compatible with European law, and that strong links between France’s elected officials and those in the mountain industries aid this situation.

“Their mentality is that if they kick all the British workers out then they can have the whole cake to themselves,” he says.

Partly due to this pressure, and to the fact that responsibility for application of the law is punted down to local level, incomers are frequently met with a blizzard of misinformation, misdirection and general mulish cussedness.

“If you don’t speak the language or you are unfamiliar with the rules it’s easy to get caught up in what I call the French resistance,” he says. Even if a declaration is made correctly, questions can be raised and the whole processes lengthened unnecessarily.

“Unless they can prove a substantial difference between your qualification and the French one then they can’t refuse your application,” he says. “If they do, then you go to court and win. The problem is, very few people end up going to court.”

The EOEC has previously represented non-French snowboard instructors in their battle to be allowed to work, resulting in a successful court appeal. With around 12 cases relating to mountain biking, mostly Brits, currently on his books, there’s every chance the process will be repeated, he thinks, not least that the French don’t have the law on their side.

“If they apply the law properly they know they can’t win. You can’t expect more from foreign workers than from your own nationals, but the French do, they are permanently cheating,” he says.

Words by Dom Perry.

Photos courtesy of TrailAddiction.

 

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