Economy & Business

France v. Uber Turns Violent

Striking taxi drivers set fires in Marseilles on June 25. (Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP/Getty)

Revolutionary fervor has seized unionized cab drivers across France since yesterday, as nearly 3,000 have taken to the streets, attacking other drivers and setting cars on fire. Their trigger: the launch of UberPOP, a peer-to-peer service by the ride-share app company Uber that is banned nationwide.

Taxi-union officials announced their intent to hold a nationwide strike against the tech company a week ago, railing against its decision to start UberPOP in three new French cities despite the program’s being embroiled in French courts. No one, however, expected protests to escalate to such levels. Cabbies barricaded roads, airports, and train stations in major cities including Paris, Marseilles, Nice, and Lyons.

In at least a handful of incidents, UberPOP drivers and clients have been assaulted and detained by taxi drivers, bricks have been flung at windows, and tires have been slashed. And there have been reports of cabbies using the Uber app as a weapon against itself by ordering rides only to entrap and injure the drivers. Meanwhile, some tourists — singer Courtney Love Cobain among them — have been stranded by the unrest.

“We are truly sorry to have to hold clients and drivers hostage,” the leader of one taxi company said to the French press. “We’re not doing this lightly.” 

The French government’s response to the violence: Try pacifying the hostage-takers. Interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve instructed police in Paris to respond to the “grave problems with public order” by banning already-banned UberPOP activities. And although cabbies are the only ones holding people against their will, he threatened to prosecute Uber drivers for a crime that sounds like human trafficking — the “illicit transportation of people” — which is punishable by up to two years in prison and a €300,000 fine.

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Gallic taxi unions have waged war against Uber — although not this fiercely — for a few years now, claiming that members have been bringing in 30 to 40 percent less business since the company arrived in the country in 2013. The company has since amassed over 1 million active users, a quarter of whom have signed up for UberPOP — the European equivalent to UberX in the U.S., which allows people who do not have expensive chauffeur licenses to become drivers. In France, these licenses can cost around €240,000, which along with expensive union membership and insurance fees is what’s really at the heart of the cabbies’ financial woes.

Cab drivers have over the past few years been pulling less violent versions of this week’s stunts in order to compel officials to stymie the tech company’s growth. In response to union pressure, officials enacted a rule forcing drivers of private companies such as Uber to wait 15 minutes after a customer hailed them before allowing the customer into their car. One of the country’s top courts suspended the law a month later.

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Earlier this year, taxi unions blockaded Parisian streets to protest the company, demanding that the government completely ban UberPOP on grounds that its drivers unfairly don’t have to purchase costly licenses. Although a French judge ruled in Uber’s favor in a resulting lawsuit, French officials gave into union demands, citing concerns for customer safety. So since January, UberPOP has been outlawed by the government, but not the courts.

Yet this weekend’s turmoil — complete with effigies labeled “Uber” and histrionic Twitter invocations of “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” — is ample evidence that, to the taxi drivers’ violent dissatisfaction, this ban hasn’t kept the peace. In a way, thesponse should be no surprise: Since 2009, France has topped the European Trade Union Institute’s list of countries with the most strike days.

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Despite government crackdowns and union-backed hysteria, Uber has stuck to its guns, condemning the violence and underlining “the fact that no French court of justice has declared UberPOP illegal.”

In Germany, Spain, and several other European countries, court orders have explicitly prohibited UberPOP. Meanwhile, Uber had set a goal to be in 26 of the 28 European Union nations by the end of the summer. France might be the tech company’s final chance to secure a foothold in a big European country.

According to the firm, as of this morning, UberPOP prices in Paris have surged to 90 percent higher than normal, but a driver can still pick you up in approximately four minutes. Clients and drivers apparently remain undaunted.

— Shubhankar Chhokra is an intern at National Review.

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