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French government seeks to defuse violent Uber protests in Paris

French riot police stand next to an overturned car as taxi drivers in Paris protest against competition from taxi app Uber on June 25, 2015.
French riot police stand next to an overturned car as taxi drivers in Paris protest against competition from taxi app Uber on June 25, 2015. AFP

French President Francois Hollande on Friday condemned violent protests against ride-booking app Uber after taxi drivers set fire to vehicles and blocked highways, but added that the low-cost UberPOP amateur chauffeur service should be dismantled.

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Speaking at summit of EU leaders in Brussels, Hollande described the demonstrations as "unacceptable violence in a democracy, in a country like France."

However, the French president added that "UberPOP should be dismantled and declared illegal."

An October law made the company's UberPOP service illegal, with penalties up to two years in prison and fines up to 300,000 euros for non-registered drivers who pick up fares. But Uber appealed to French administrative courts, arguing that the law went against the freedom of entrepreneurship.

On Tuesday, the case was deferred to France’s constitutional council, which has three months to make a final ruling.

Throughout all the legal manoeuvring, UberPOP drivers have continued to provide rides in France –much to the ire of traditional taxi drivers.

Overturned vehicles

Simmering anger appeared to boil over on Thursday, with demonstrations turning violent in some areas of Paris. French TV stations broadcasted images of burning tyres blocking sections of the ring road, overturned vehicles and scuffles between cabbies and other drivers.

The strike was not limited to the French capital, with an estimated 2,800 taxi drivers taking part nationwide.

In the south of France, cabbies set up barriers around Marseille and Aix-en Provence, blocking motorway exits and cutting off access to train stations in the two cities.

Overall, 10 people were arrested during Thursday’s protests, which left seven police officers injured and 70 vehicles damaged, according to the interior ministry.

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls also condemned the unrest, warning that those responsible “from both sides” of the conflict would be prosecuted.

Around 100 taxi drivers continued to partially block roads near Porte Maillot in north-west Paris on Friday morning, but many other colleagues had returned to work.

Aggressive business

Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve on Thursday threw his weight behind the striking cabbies by calling on the police to immediately clampdown on UberPOP (the equivalent of UberX in the United States).

The Paris police immediately issued an order banning the low-cost private chauffeuring service from operating in the city. But San Francisco-based Uber, which is known for its aggressive approach to business, made it clear that it has no intention of complying with the ban.

“It’s a prefectural decree, we’re going to contest it and see what happens. For the moment, it doesn’t change anything. UberPOP can continue,” Thibaud Simphal, director of Uber France, told BFM television.

Cazeneuve later met with a delegation of taxi drivers, after which the interior ministry announced that anyone caught driving for UberPOP would have their vehicle seized.

Uber, which operates in 58 countries and is worth an estimated $50 billion according to US media reports, claims more than a million customers in France alone, 400,000 of which use UberPOP.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS)

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