A US company using state-of- the-art technology sets up in France, provides work for 12,000 men and fulfils a vital public need.
You might think it was a good news story. But the arrival of Uber, which provides chauffeur-driven cars ordered from a smartphone app on as little as one minute's notice, threatens the livelihood of 55,000 French taxi drivers and is a major headache for the French government.
French taxi drivers have gone on strike regularly since 1911. In 1937, the prefect of Paris established a numerus clausus, limiting the number of cabs in the capital to 14,000. In the intervening decades, the ceiling on licensed cabs has increased by only 3,000.
The shortage of Paris cabs inspired Uber founder Travis Kalanick. In December 2008, Kalanick attended a conference in the suburb of Saint Denis, and was unable to find a taxi to back into Paris. He returned to San Francisco, set up Uber and today, at the age of 39, has a personal fortune estimated at $6 billion.
I don't recall a Paris cab driver ever going on the rampage and shooting six people dead, as Uber driver Jason Brian Dalton is accused of having done in Kalamazoo, Michigan, on February 20th.
But Paris taxi drivers are notoriously rude. On returning late one night from a reporting trip, I politely asked the taxi driver to turn down the music. He threatened to dump me on the motorway outside Roissy Charles de Gaulle airport.
Earlier this month, a driver yelled at me when I objected to his reading the map he held above the steering wheel as we hurtled down a busy boulevard. We ended up at the wrong end of a one-way street, and the same driver left me a kilometre from my appointment.
Uber has transformed the lives of 1.5 million regular riders in eight French cities. Uber drivers arrive two or three times more quickly than cabs from the old taxi monopoly. They wear suits and ties. Their cars are clean. They open the door for you. All for half the cost of a Paris taxi.
Because most Uber drivers are second- or third-generation North African Arab immigrants – known in French slang as beurs – the company has earned the sobriquet "U-beur". These are young men who would probably never have found jobs.
Now the Paris taxi ranks where one waited desperately are flooded with dozens of idle taxis, as Parisians desert them en masse for Uber. The taxi drivers had it coming to them, I’ve heard more than once.
History of strikes
Since the former president
authorised VTCs (
véhicules de tourisme avec chauffeur
), the cab drivers have been fighting for their livelihoods. There have been 25 taxi strikes in three years, according to Uber. Each time, tyres are burned at barricades. The Paris ring-road grinds to a halt.
On the worst day of protests, on June 25th, seven policemen were injured and 70 vehicles were damaged. Irate taxi drivers attacked a VTC carrying US rock star Courtney Love.
“They’ve ambushed our car and are holding our driver hostage. They’re beating the cars with metal bats,” Love tweeted. “This is France?? I’m safer in Baghdad.”
In London, claims a source at Uber, Scotland Yard authorises taxi drivers to strike for two hours, after which their licences are revoked for two years. In France, rampaging taxi drivers are never charged. After a day or two of traffic chaos, they are ushered in to see top-ranking officials, and the government caves in.
Uber France’s headquarters in northeast Paris have the look and feel of the internet giants: clean, slick, modern, staffed by young men and women in casual clothing.
Uber replicates their practices too, sending profits directly to European headquarters in the Netherlands to avoid French taxes.
But Uber also feels under siege. There are no signs announcing its presence, and the doors at the second-floor entrance are made of thick, bullet-proof glass.
Uber drivers sometimes ask male passengers if they mind sitting in the front seat, to make it less likely they’ll be spotted and attacked by taxi drivers.
On the legal front of the taxi war, the directors of Uber France and Uber Europe, Thibaud Simphal and Pierre- Dimitri Gore-Coty, were back in criminal court on Thursday, in the very room where Marie-Antoinette was condemned to the guillotine in 1793.
The taxi companies "want their heads", Le Monde newspaper speculated.
The Uber bosses are on trial for alleged illegal organisation of a taxi service. The prosecutor has asked for a € 1.5 million fine for Uber, and personal fines of €50,000 and €70,000 for Simphal and Gore-Coty. In theory, they risk three years in prison. The verdict will be handed down in two to three months.
Back in 2008, the Attali commission recommended deregulating the taxi industry. The rapporteur for the commission was Emmanuel Macron, who now holds the economy portfolio and is one of the most popular government ministers.
But taxi drivers revolted the following year, and the government commissioned another report to kill the reform. There was a new law in 2014, and an official mediator last month presented the umpteenth set of recommendations to the prime minister.
Meanwhile, the “Uberisation” of the French economy progresses. France may be the last holdout against globalisation and liberal economics, but when citizens’ needs meet the digital revolution, the real world encroaches.