France faces gridlock as taxis stage strike against Uber
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French taxi unions are set to begin a nationwide, unlimited strike on Thursday as a festering dispute with the popular minicab service UberPOP turns increasingly ugly.
Taxis will be gathering outside transport hubs in France’s main cities in protest against Uber’s low-cost minicab service, with some unions warning that they will bring tents to camp out until the UberPOP app is pulled.
Companies like Uber “continue to sell applications that promote undeclared labor”, the unions said in a statement, throwing their support behind “all targeted actions organised from this day on against Uber”.
It is not the first time French taxis have rallied against the rise of minicab services, particularly San Francisco-based Uber, which uses advanced mobile applications to link passengers to private drivers. Unions have long argued that such services constitute unfair competition because drivers do not have to pay the standard €230,000 charge for a taxi licence.
The UberPop app goes a step further by using non-professional drivers with their own cars to take on passengers at budget rates. Unlike the standard Uber service, which has to comply with French rules on so-called “chauffeured tourism vehicles” (VTCs), UberPOP follows no specific regulations and involves no charges for drivers. It means anyone with a car and a driving license is a potential cabbie.
Tensions have boiled over in recent weeks, with taxi drivers and UberPOP chauffeurs reportedly clashing in Lille, Nice and Strasbourg.
UberPOP drivers say they have been ambushed by cabbies posing as customers and in some cases beaten up. When police arrested six taxi drivers accused of attacking an Uber chauffeur in Nice last week, fellow cabbies protested by blocking access to the local airport.
Uber spokesperson Thomas Meister has reported “several dozen” cases of assault and damage to vehicles, slamming protesters’ “thuggish methods”.
Without condoning the violence, some taxi unions have approved of throwing eggs and flour at UberPOP cars. They want the government to get serious about enforcing a ban on the controversial app.
‘Boers’ on patrol
UberPOP was banned in France on January 1 after parliament passed a law late last year regulating competition within the country’s taxi industry. Uber promptly appealed the legislation, which is now being examined by the country’s constitutional court.
According to the controversial rule, drivers caught using UberPOP face fines of up to €300,000 and a possible two-year jail term. But taxi unions say the ongoing legal dispute has sapped efforts to enforce the ban.
Special police units, known as “Les Boers”, have been assigned to hunt for UberPOP chauffeurs. Their job is to patrol the streets of Paris and other French cities looking for unmarked cars with mobile phones on the dashboard and a passenger in the back seat – the usual telltale signs.
Addressing French lawmakers on Tuesday, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said Boer units had caught 420 users of the app since the start of the year. He urged prosecutors and police to better coordinate actions against unauthorised drivers.
But while Cazeneuve repeated the government’s stance that UberPOP is “absolutely illegal”, the US company is clearly not deterred. Since the start of the ban, it has continued to advertise the low-cost service on its website, expanding its service in several French cities and encouraging its drivers to keep working while it appeals the legislation.
“From the shores of the Mediterranean to the banks of the [western French River] Erdre to the heart of Alsace [in eastern France], a single application is all that’s needed to get around town!” the company said in a statement on its website earlier this month, as it launched the controversial app in Marseille, Nantes and Strasbourg.
Uber executives are confident that the ban on UberPOP will eventually be quashed in court, as have previous attempts at curbing the rise of minicab services.
In October 2013, in one of its first attempts to placate traditional taxis, the government imposed on VTCs a 15-minute delay between making a reservation and picking up a customer, only for a court to overturn the ruling. Last December, a court injunction banning UberPOP was also quashed on appeal.
“Ruling after ruling, our opponents’ simplistic vision is proven wrong,” Uber France head Thibaud Simphal told Reuters last week. “In six months of legal proceedings, not a single judge in France has banned UberPOP.”
Each time it is attacked, Uber aggressively fights back. The European Commission has recently acknowledged it is examining two complaints filed against the French authorities, whom Uber accuses of hindering competition and free enterprise.
Uber born on a cold night in Paris
France is hardly alone in presenting Uber with legal roadblocks. The company has been hit by court injunctions in Germany, Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands. It is illegal in Thailand and was banned in New Delhi last December after a passenger accused one of its drivers of rape.
Uber is also being challenged at home, with California’s labour commissioner ruling last week that drivers connecting with clients through its app must be considered as employees, with a minimum wage, mileage compensation and social security.
But none of these hurdles appear to be halting the company’s exponential growth. Founded just six years ago, Uber presently operates in 58 countries and has been valued at close to $50 billion. It claims more than a million customers in France alone, 400,000 of which use UberPOP.
Ironically, the company’s very origins can be traced back to France. Its founder, Travis Kalanick, says he came up with the idea seven years ago while waiting in vain for a cab on a cold winter night in Paris.
Hailing a cab in the City of Light can be a challenge. The number of taxi licenses is strictly controlled, with just more than 17,000 serving the French capital. This scarcity helps explain why the licenses are so expensive. Government attempts to expand the number of licenses have been opposed by taxi drivers, who fear such a move would cut into their earnings.
Now Uber’s CEO, Kalanick has touted his company as a boon for customers, employment and the environment. He said in January he hoped to take 400,000 cars off European roads this year and create some 50,000 jobs.
Kalanick did not specify at the time that his company is also investing heavily in a Pittsburgh-based research lab – whose mission is to eventually replace drivers with self-driving vehicles.