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Need a ride? Paris taxi drivers fend off Uber as court case looms (+video)

The uproar over the US-based ride-hailing service is part of France's ongoing reaction to globalization. Last week two top Uber executives in Paris were arrested briefly for allegedly running an illegal business. 

The alternative taxi service Uber has suspended its French operations after regular taxi drivers in Paris wreaked havoc on roads last week and two Uber executives were charged with running an illegal taxi service. 

With cars and tires set ablaze and roads barricaded, the French government called for a shutdown of UberPOP, a ride-hailing service. Taxi drivers in Paris have launched “Operation Escargo” – driving at a snail’s pace and holding up other traffic. 

Around the globe Uber is stirring multiple hornets nests: In Johannesburg Uber executives are pleading with police to protect their drivers and passengers from harassment. In Toronto, hoped-for talks between Uber and regular taxi drivers just turned sour. In Florida’s Broward County Uber officials today said the firm will stop operating because of restrictive rules for new driver’s licenses.

Yet among the most implacable opponents of Uber are Parisian cabbies, who have a deeply ingrained guild mentality and settled assumptions of place in the economic chain. Their response appears to be emblematic of French suspicions of globalization, and typical of a society that has stoutly resisted change, from the advent of McDonald’s to Amazon.com, despite the rise of a tech-savvy generation. 

Taxi drivers are not only at odds with threatening new technology but represent a part of society fighting for old traditions – from keeping shops shut on Sundays to protecting the 35-hour working week.

Sociologist Pierre Boisard at ENS Cachan University says the anti-Uber protests are part of a French tradition with roots in the peasant class and that continues with small artists or business owners resisting what could be seen as the collective good. 

In strike-happy France, moreover, taxi drivers are not like air controllers or train workers who walk out in order to press for higher pay, Prof. Boisard says. “It’s generally to safeguard [taxi driver’s] particular status, to protest against competition,” he says. “It’s… a movement against the currents of the times.”

Labor strike fatigue

As in the US, bookstores in France have buckled under the pressure of Amazon.com, and hotels are losing customers to Airbnb.

For taxi drivers, Operation Escargo is a way to get the government's attention at a time when France is increasingly numb to labor strikes, such as last week's farmers' protest over stagnating prices that included setting tires on fire and ladling manure into the streets.

While the tussle over taxis and Uber appears to have come from nowhere, discontent has been brewing for some time. Even before Uber, numerous attempts had been tried – and failed – to reform Paris's over-priced and badly responsive taxi system.

Taxi operators in France have to shell out upwards of 240,000 euros to acquire the necessary license. Drivers are “self-employed” and pay part of their earnings to dispatchers and also pay government taxes.

Nor, like most professions in France, is there a union or one collective bargaining group to represent taxi drivers.

“Booksellers and pharmacists have also had trouble conforming to this new digital reality, but there are unions to support them,” says Victor Collard, an economics researcher at the Terra Nova think tank. “Taxi drivers don’t have that. This lack of representation has contributed to the revolts and the violence we’ve seen.”

Regimented status

Some analysts describe the revolt in terms of injured pride. Due to the pricey licensing system, taxi drivers have enjoyed a monopoly of privilege and power, says Dominique Andolfatto, professor of political science at the University of Bourgogne.

“This profession has a strong identity and drivers are prepared to do anything to defend their very regimented status,” he says. “In a way, it reflects an anti-liberal and protectionist way of life that characterizes certain sectors of the French economy – it’s a concept that is viewed as the ideal by a large part of French society.”

Yet while some here are fighting for the traditions of eras past, an increasing number – youth especially – have had enough and embrace economic deregulation. Many in Paris welcome Uber as a welcome innovation in a city where hailing a cab is cause for endless frustration.

“Paris is the only city in the world where it is hard to find a taxi,” said then-President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2008; a 2010 poll by Hotels.com found that Paris’s taxi service only received 10 percent satisfaction from foreign users.

The taxi system highlights problems in France’s highly regulated labor market, where red tape makes structural changes extremely difficult.

“We all knew that this system would collapse within the digital revolution, but instead of anticipating it, the government was afraid to address the issues for fear of upsetting taxi drivers – and it eventually happened anyway,” says David Viret-Lange, Chief Information Officer at French telecom giant Orange Business Services.

 “What’s interesting is that Uber has accomplished something that we thought would never happen in France: digital innovations are inciting change where politicians have failed to do so,” he adds. 

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