Uber, France in cul­ture crash

Taxi driv­ers vi­o­lently protest the Amer­i­can ride- share com­pany as it faces hur­dles in a pro­tec­tion­ist na­tion.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Kim Will­sher, Alexan­dra Zavis and An­drea Chang

PARIS — Cars over­turned. Roads block­aded with f lam­ing tires. That’s what hap­pens when the U. S. shar­ing econ­omy tan­gles with French pro­tec­tion­ism.

Hun­dreds of French taxi driv­ers took to the streets Thurs­day in some­times vi­o­lent protest against Uber, block­ing ac­cess to ma­jor air- ports and train sta­tions, and at­tack­ing ve­hi­cles sus­pected of work­ing for the pop­u­lar car ser­vice, which they ac­cuse of steal­ing their liveli­hoods.

The vi­o­lence fol­lows weeks of es­ca­lat­ing ten­sion over the San Fran­cis­cobased firm’s de­ci­sion to con­tinue of­fer­ing its low- cost UberPop ser­vice de­spite an Oc­to­ber law that bars com­pa­nies from con­nect­ing pas­sen­gers with un­reg­is­tered driv­ers.

French taxi unions ac­cuse UberPop of ig­nor­ing re­peated court rul­ings and com­plain that po­lice have turned a blind eye to the op­er­a­tion. The coun­try’s in­te­rior min­is­ter, Bernard Cazeneuve, said Thurs­day that the ser­vice must be shut down, cit­ing the “se­ri­ous public or­der dis­tur­bances and de­vel­op­ment of this illegal ac­tiv­ity.”

The com­pany has ap­pealed the judg­ments and says it is wait­ing for a f inal de­ci­sion from France’s con­sti­tu­tional court, which be­gan de­lib­er­at­ing on the mat­ter Tues­day.

Thomas Meis­ter, an Uber

spokesman, ac­cused Cazeneuve of dis­re­gard­ing the le­gal process. “The way things work in a state of law is that it’s for the jus­tice to judge whether some­thing is illegal or not,” Meis­ter told re­porters.

Uber has faced re­peated push­back from taxi op­er­a­tors and reg­u­la­tors as it has ex­panded into more than 300 cities across six con­ti­nents. In an at­tempt to win over skep­ti­cal lo­cal author­i­ties, the com­pany has touted its po­ten­tial to cre­ate jobs, re­duce con­ges­tion and boost tax rev­enue.

Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Travis Kalan­ick made the case in Jan­uary that many taxis in Europe op­er­ate “off- grid” and that Uber could be a way to bring them into com­pli­ance with lo­cal safety reg­u­la­tions and tax obli­ga­tions.

The ar­gu­ment, how­ever, does not ap­pear to have swayed many Euro­pean gov­ern­ments or taxi com­pa­nies. More than a dozen law­suits have been f iled in re­cent months in coun­tries across the con­ti­nent, where some an­a­lysts say the com­pany is in dan­ger of be­ing shut down or be­com­ing so en­tan­gled in leg­is­la­tion as to be neutered.

In France, the bat­tle is seen as the epit­ome of the cul­ture clash be­tween Amer­i­can free- mar­ket val­ues and French eco­nomic pro­tec­tion­ism.

“They’re very pro­tec­tion­ist of their cul­ture, their way of life, their way of do­ing things,” said Hugh Tal­lents, a part­ner at the New York man­age­ment con­sult­ing f irm Cg42. “It’s not un­heard of for unions to strike on a mo­ment’s no­tice or to re­tal­i­ate against dis­rup­tive mar­ket forces.”

Tal­lents sug­gested that Uber might have to in­cor­po­rate a lit­tle more cul­tural sen­si­tiv­ity into its op­er­at­ing model as it con­tin­ues to ex- pand.

“Uber’s strat­egy is one where they go in and take a very ac­tive ap­proach.... They know their win­dow for shoring up share and gain­ing riders and driv­ers is short be­cause there are a lot of hun­gry com­peti­tors out there,” he said. “Peo­ple will be look­ing at France as the poster child of how things can go wrong. I don’t think this will nec­es­sar­ily de­rail Uber. But I think it could give them pause.”

French taxi driv­ers com­plain that ser­vices such as Uber have an un­fair ad­van­tage be­cause their driv­ers don’t pay for li­censes that can cost up to $ 270,000. Some don’t pay taxes and so­cial charges, ei­ther, ac­cord­ing to French of­fi­cials. Cazeneuve be­rated Uber as a com­pany that “with ar­ro­gance ap­plies none of the rules of law of the re­pub­lic.”

“We are faced with per- ma­nent provo­ca­tion,” Serge Metz, the head of the taxi com­pany G7, told French tele­vi­sion. “There can be only one re­sponse: a f irm and sys­tem­atic seizure of of­fend­ing ve­hi­cles.”

Uber coun­ters that the taxi driv­ers are an out­dated lobby f ixed on de­fend­ing their mo­nop­oly at the ex­pense of cus­tomer needs. The com­pany es­ti­mates that its smart­phone app has about 400,000 French users a month.

Visi­tors to the French cap­i­tal can tes­tify to the fre­quent dif­fi­culty of f ind­ing a cab in Paris. French taxi driv­ers have also faced com­plaints of be­ing re­sis­tant to change, in­clud­ing the use of credit cards and GPS tech­nol­ogy.

An es­ti­mated 2,800 taxi driv­ers took part in Thurs­day’s strike, set­ting up about 30 block­ades across France, in­clud­ing on roads lead­ing to Paris’ Charles de Gaulle and Orly air­ports. Lines of trav­el­ers could be seen trudg­ing along busy highways, drag­ging their lug­gage be­hind them, to catch f lights and trains. Riot po­lice f ired tear gas to clear protest­ing driv­ers from the ring road around Paris.

There were re­ports in the French media of gangs of taxi driv­ers hunt­ing down driv­ers they sus­pected of op­er­at­ing for Uber at the two air­ports and of at­tacks on some pri­vate- hire cars and even li­censed taxis that were not tak­ing part in the protests.

Among those caught up in the vi­o­lence was ac­tress­mu­si­cian Court­ney Love, whose ride was am­bushed by anti- Uber protesters.

“They’re beat­ing the cars with me­tal bats. This is France?? I’m safer in Bagh­dad,” she tweeted.

In another tweet, Love lam­basted the French pres­i­dent: “Fran­cois Hol­lande where are the ... po­lice??? is it le­gal for your peo­ple to at­tack visi­tors?”

The singer was res­cued by two men on a mo­tor­cy­cle but said she had been “scared out of her wits.”

In the eastern city of Stras­bourg, there were re­ports of taxi driv­ers pos­ing as Uber cus­tomers to lure driv­ers to iso­lated spots where they and their ve­hi­cles were at­tacked.

Meis­ter, the Uber spokesman, de­scribed the at­tacks as “to­tally scan­dalous” and the “ac­tions of yobs.”

“It’s a small mi­nor­ity of taxi driv­ers who are not do­ing their pro­fes­sion any fa­vors,” he said.

It is not un­usual for French in­dus­trial ac­tion to turn vi­o­lent. This week, strik­ing work­ers at the MyFer­ryLink trans­porta­tion com­pany blocked ac­cess to the Chan­nel Tun­nel. Eurostar trains were can­celed for the af­ter­noon af­ter the rail com­pany said strik­ers had dam­aged sec­tions of the track. Riot po­lice were even­tu­ally called in to drag the protesters away as they sang the French na­tional an­them, “La Mar­seil­laise.”

In 1999, a French sheep farmer be­came a na­tional hero when he led a group to “dis­man­tle” a McDon­ald’s res­tau­rant that was be­ing built in the south of France. Jose Bove was protest­ing against re­stric­tions im­posed by the Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion on im­ported Ro­que­fort cheese.

Pho­tog r aphs by I an Langs­don Euro­pean Pressphoto Agency

A VE­HI­CLE is set ablaze in Paris as taxi driv­ers clash with po­lice dur­ing a protest against Uber, the San Fran­cisco- based car ser­vice.

TAXI­CABS block roads in Paris. French taxi driv­ers cut off ac­cess to ma­jor air­ports and train sta­tions and at­tacked ve­hi­cles sus­pected of work­ing for the car ser­vice Uber, which they ac­cuse of steal­ing their liveli­hoods.

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