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A Year of Challenges for French Figure Skating

by Klaus-Reinhold Kany

(11 December 2020)  Former French ice dancer Nathalie Pechalat, bronze medalist at Worlds in 2012 and 2014, gold medalists at Europeans 2011 and 2012 and fourth at the Olympic Games of 2014, all with dance partner Fabian Bourzat, was elected president of the French Ice Sport Federation in March 2020. This organization covers not only figure skating, ice dance and synchronized skating, but also speed skating, short track, sledding and bobsledding. She was elected the successor of Didier Gailhaguet who retired in February 2020 under pressure from different sources, including the French minister of sports, who accused him of knowing about but not stopping several scandals during his presidency, an accusation he denies.

Pechalat is now 36 years old, married to the famous French actor Jean Dujardin and they have a five-year-old daughter named Jeanne. This summer she revealed that she expects a second child this winter. Her start as president was very difficult because of the very strict lockdown due to the Covid -19 virus. She was not allowed to leave her home after the election and go to the office of the federation. French law did not allow anybody to move away from his home further than one kilometer (0.6 miles). During this time she was unable to review the unsecured records of the federation.

It took Pechalat many weeks to rework the operations of the federation, and create new rules and statues, some of which had not even existed before. In order to present a clean face of the federation to the Sports Ministry and the public, with no management ties to the past, she replaced several of the personnel who previously worked for the federation, some of whom were accused of involvement in the sexual crimes and other forbidden activities that came to light before she took office.

Among those replaced were the sports director of the federation (who approximately does the same job as the high performance directors in U.S. figure skating and Skate Canada) was Katia Krier. She resigned in October.

Some weeks later, the Ministry of Sport decided to nominate renowned coach and TV skating expert Annick Dumont as new sports director. Some other coaches and former top skaters Jean-Christophe Simond and Agnès Gosselin criticized this decision because Dumont had been married to Gailhaguet from 1986 to 2005 and had been married during a short time before 1986 also to Gilles Beyer who is accused of sexually abusing pair skater Sarah Abitbol, and maybe other girls.  Dumont began her position as sport director on 1 December.

Gosselin and Simond said Dumont must have known a lot about the scandals. But Dumont had said in an interview with the daily sport newspaper L’Equipe in March 2020 that at the beginning she had not known about the forbidden sexual behavior of Beyer. When she learned about his crimes, she got divorced from him right away. The French version of the magazine Vanity Fair wrote in late November that former pair skater Sarah Abitbol, who wrote the often discussed French book "Such a Long Silence“ about her life as a victim of coaches, is among the 50 most influential ladies in France.

In July Pechalat planned to implement a new rule which forbids every official to act longer than three periods of four years. Her obvious goal was to prevent former president Didier Gailhaguet to try to become president at the next election again because he had acted for more than 3 full periods. In Pechalat‘s first attempt, less than 50 per cent of the club presidents voted at all, so the vote was not valid. But some weeks later in a second attempt, the necessary number of club president voted and 83 per cent of them voted in favor of this new rule.

In late September the French federation organized their traditional Masters competition in spite of many Covid 19 cases, in which those French skaters who live in France performed their program to the officials and in front of TV cameras. But those French skaters who train abroad could not come due to travel restrictions.

The cancellation of the French Grand Prix in Grenoble was a serious blow for the federation because Pechalat had planned to show a scandal-free new federation to the public and the media, and had planned to win new sponsors because all former sponsors had left the federation after the scandals were revealed. It was also hard for the French skaters because none of them had any international competition nor a Grand Prix this fall. Following the cancellation, Pechalat announced that next year, the French Grand Prix is planned for Grenoble in November again, hopefully under normal conditions like in the years before. The exact date has not been fixed.

French Nationals were planned for the weekend around the 19 December, at first in Cergy-Pontoise, a suburb of Paris. But when this area became a hotspot of the virus the event was moved to Vaujany in the French Alps. But soon the Alps also had many infections. The central French government then forbaid all sports events all over France.

Pechalat is a celebrity as wife of a famous French actor. She uses her role to give many interviews in which she tries to announce optimistic plans for the future. She also wrote an “Open Letter“ to all club presidents in which she asks them to respect and understand the strict restrictions and closed rinks at the moment. As soon as this is over, she promised a bright future for the clubs. But a first setback came when the ISU announced the (expected) cancellation of the Synchronized Junior World Championships which were supposed to take place in Lyon in March 2021.

On December 4 and 5, those French top skaters who train in France, were allowed to come to Grenoble for a monitoring by the federation which had to decide who to send to the Europeans (which were cancelled on December 10) and the World Championships in March in Sweden. But some skaters like the top ice dance couples and single skater Mae-Berenice Meite train in North America and could send only videos because all countries in the European Union forbid people from the USA and Canada to enter Europe, just as almost no European is allowed to enter North America.

The ice dance world champions Gabriella Papadakis & Guillaume Cizeron train in Montreal and announced to compete this season only at Worlds in Sweden. The first reason were the travel restrictions and the mandatory quarantine when crossing the border to Europe and when they return to Canada. Another reason is that both dancers caught the virus in the summer and especially Cizeron got seriously sick with a lung infection, as he told a French TV station in October. He still often feels bad, weak and out of shape, can still not smell anything and does not want to perform at the moment. They plan to keep their aerobic Rhythm Dance number to the music of "Fame“. In a video from Montreal they showed their new free dance to music of the Tango “Jealousy“ and to a Tango-Flamenco. But they performed their program in three parts because they were exhausted after dancing for one and half a minute. Some other French skaters like Grand Prix 2019 finalist Kevin Aymoz also caught a Covid 19 infection but he could train again after two or three weeks. All French top skaters miss the money from Gala Exhibitions this year, but the French State supports them a lot.

Many French coaches have left their country in the last 10 or 20 years. Between 15 and 20 moved to Switzerland, others to the USA, Canada or other European countries like Belgium, the Netherlands, the Scandinavian countries or Germany. Some of them had disagreements with Gailhaguet, while for others there were also financial or personal reasons. Some coaches left France after sex scandals and looked for work in other countries where nobody cared about their former life in France.

One of them is former single skater Marc Mandina from Nice in Southern France who had been a single skater between 1990 and 2000. Years later he suddenly left France and started working as a coach in the USA. The French news agency AFP reported in November 2020 that in the USA in 2011, he was accused of having illegally filmed a 12-year-old girl in the shower of a rink and while she was undressing. He plead guilty and was banned for life from any ice rink. He lived for three years “under the custody of U.S. justice,“ as the agency writes, and his name was included on an online black list which everybody could see in the internet. In 2019, he appeared in France again, but as an American coach named Marco Vega who spoke fluent French. The club in the town of Mulhouse in Eastern France hired him as a coach without knowing his past. In June 2020 the police in Mulhouse received an E-mail from a club member who revealed his past. He was arrested and the police found nude photos of local girls, illegal drugs and falsified papers with his name in his home.

Another case is French pair skater Morgan Ciprès.

In September he and his skating partner Vanessa James announced their retirement. James competed in the Canadian TV show “Battle of the Blades,“ but Ciprès has remained in France since 2019. The newspaper USA Today published first in 2019, and repeated in several subsequent articles, that Ciprès had sent photos of his nude penis to two 13-year-old girls in late 2017 who trained in the same rink in Florida with him. His coaches were also criticized for not having informed SafeSport or the police, and were accused of pressuring the alleged victims not to make reports,  an accusation the coaches deny.  Earlier this year a SafeSport investigation was opened by a complaint from one alleged victim and her parents that is still pending.  The second alleged victim and her parents chose not to pursue legal actions.  Recently,  in early December, 2020, the Florida state attorney filed felony charge against Ciprès for the transmission of material harmful to a minor, and a warrant was issued for his arrest.

In October the disciplinary commission of the federation decided not to take any measures against Ciprès because they had no proof then that he had done anything wrong. They only had the USA Today articles, but no proof from the justice system or a court of law, or a complaint from a victim.  France has an extradition treaty with the U.S., but France does not extradite its own citizens.  Thus, so long as he stays in France, Ciprès appears safe from the U.S. legal system.

In France, many people think that Ciprès was extremely silly as a 26 year-old man to send such photos to young girls, because he should know that this is a crime in the USA. But in France most people think that such a case is not a serious crime because millions of teenagers send nude photos to each other every day and just laugh about it. In the USA, however, many people think such a behavior is a serious crime, especially for a 26-year-old man. Ciprès meanwhile has a new profession as a real estate agent in France, no longer skates, and refuses interviews.