On the Trail With Trainee Private Detectives

Private investigators go to school too.

This article originally appeared on VICE France.

Charles turns the steering wheel sharply to the right, sending a few items tumbling from the dashboard onto the floor, his eyes fixed on the car we’re currently following. He’s determined to tail it at all costs, even if it means cutting off the buses and bikes in our path. “It’s turning right,” he mutters into his wireless headset


On this particular morning, Charles, 57, is teaming up with Valentin, 22 to find out if a former sports coach forced to retire due to a leg injury is actually lying about his medical issues. Classic private detective work, except for one crucial detail: None of it is real. The whole thing is a training exercise, conjured up by the Ecole Supérieure des Agents de Recherches Privées (ESARP), France’s premier private investigator (PI) school, to prepare them for the real deal. Both Charles’s and Valentin’s surnames have been omitted at the request of their school.

“Slow down, Charles – traffic laws still apply,” says Julie Catalifaud, 36, a private detective and ESARP teacher, as she grips the car door for dear life. Today’s fake assignment is an increasingly common one for PIs – “companies even have algorithms that detect potential cases of fraud to start an investigation,” adds Samuel Mathis, the head of the school. 

A few minutes later, our detectives-in-training close in on the fake coach giving a private lesson in a park, where they plainly spot her using her leg without any apparent issues. The next step in any job is gathering proof – in this case, compromising photos – while staying undetected.

Charles trying to snap pictures.

Valentin chooses to sit near the coach and pretends to be on a call while snapping pictures. Charles tries to hide further away, but the professor quickly shuts his technique down. “We can see you too easily there,” she says.

After both coach and trainees return to their respective cars, the students switch places to avoid being spotted while driving. “The idea is there should always be a buffer car in between the detective and the person being tailed,” Catalifaud says. The coach stops at a shopping centre, with Valentin parking right behind her. He puts on a baseball cap, a subtle but effective disguise frequently used during investigations along with glasses or wigs.

Keeping a low profile inside shops is hard, especially if you’re in the company of your partner, teacher and a whole team of journalists. It took only a few minutes for five guards to approach us, walkie talkies in hand. “This happens a lot in this kind of environment – it’s only natural we’re seen as suspect, there are so many of us,” Catalifaud says. Under normal circumstances, this kind of thing can’t happen to a professional PI.

Soon, Catalifaud calls it a day. Valentin and Charles show her their photos and gives a brief summary of the investigation, as they would with a real client. “We saw her playing sports,” one says. “Yes, but what was she doing exactly?” Catalifaud replies. She expects nothing less than detailed professionalism from her students before she sends them out onto the job market.

Julie Catalifaud observing her students' technique.

In France, wannabe private detectives have to go through a yearlong training period to get a license. That’s a much steeper requirement than in the UK, where you don’t need any kind of formal training to be a PI, though you can choose to get a license by passing a course that lasts a few hundred hours. The competition in France is much fiercer: Only four training institutes – two universities and two private schools – are accredited to provide courses. A thousand candidates apply to ESARP alone every year, and only 35 are accepted.

Julie Catalifaud checking her students' pictures.

Catalifaud is the only female instructor on classes this week. When she got into the profession 11 years ago, there weren’t many women in the industry. According to ESARP’s director Samuel Mathis, the school has now achieved gender parity – this year’s cohort was actually 80 percent women. 

Despite the progress in academia, the professional field remains male-dominated. “I was surrounded almost entirely by men during my whole career,” Catalifaud says, adding she’s often addressed as “Mr” in cold emails. “It was never a problem, though. I don’t let people walk all over me – that’s not my personality.” In fact, she thinks her identity gives her an edge when it comes to tailing someone. “I’m very inconspicuous on the field. I’m a young woman, I don’t fit the typical profile,” she says.

Valentin getting ready to follow the coach in the shopping mall.

Besides fraud, private investigators often work on cases of adultery and breaches of non-compete clauses. In the past few years, they’ve also received calls from worried parents. “Some of our clients want to know if their kids are taking drugs, skipping school or hanging out with a bad crowd,” explains Thibault Zandecki, Catalifaud’s fellow instructor.

ESARP is open to people of all ages and backgrounds. Valentin’s classmates include Steven, a former firefighter, and Charles, an ex-banker. Valentin himself started in the hospitality industry before discovering he had a penchant for the law, which is an important part of the school’s curriculum. “I didn’t know if the profession of detective really existed beforehand,” he says.

Charles worked in international banking for 35 years and ended up in private detective work after twice using PI services himself. “I’m close to retirement and quite fit, I can use the next ten years to work as a private detective,” he says. “It’s what I want to do with the end of my career.” 

Private investigating was a part of his daily work as a banker, where he often had to figure out if clients could be trusted. That said, his professional retraining wasn’t easy. “I didn’t realise how substantial the studies would be, especially the legal aspect,” he explains. “It was very interesting, but you had to really hang on tight.”


Charles doesn’t know yet what he wants to do when he graduates, but director Mathis already sees a path laid out for him. “With his experience, he’ll be a financial detective, for sure,” he says. “There’s a real need in that field, and Charles already has the expertise.”

A student relaying information to the people on assignment from a distance

The life of a private detective is filled with adventure but is also often romanticised by movies and TV shows. It pays well, with hourly rates of between €80 and €130, but it can take time to build up to a steady income. It’s also often hard to balance private and professional life: The job requires a lot of travel and working fixed hours is anathema. 

All students have camcorders to film.

Private detectives are also pretty solitary creatures, which can put romantic relationships and friendships under a lot of stress. Catalifaud still remembers a time when she couldn’t even attend a party that was planned at her place: “Three hours before it started, I had to let everybody know I’d be in Bordeaux.”

“We know where we’re leaving, but not when we’ll be back,” Mathis smiles. “Around the time I turned 30, I came back from an assignment to find my girlfriend had moved away.” Still, he adds, he wouldn’t change his career for all the money in the world.


Detectives, Fraud, VICE International, adultery, vice france

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