Uber under fire in France as two executives are arrested

In the wake of violent protests targeting Uber, French officials have arrested two of the ride-hailing startup's executives. Although there is no direct link between the protests and the executives’ arrest, observers say it is difficult to rule out a connection between the incidents.

Michel Euler/AP/File
A striking taxi driver holding a placard which read, "Stop Uber, Stop listening," referring to the new US spying report in France, during a taxi drivers demonstration in Paris, France,Thursday, June 25, 2015 . French authorities took two Uber managers into custody for questioning on Monday over "illicit activity" involving its low-cost service. The detentions came amid rising tensions between the government and the ride-hailing company, which culminated last week in a violence-marred taxi strike that blocked roads around the country.

French workers are not known for taking a threat to their livelihoods lying down, and it would seem the country’s taxi drivers are no exception to the rule.

Late last week, France’s cab drivers brought the country’s major cities to a standstill with violent protests targeting Uber, the ride-hailing company that allows users with smartphones to connect instantaneously with nearby drivers. In response, the government opted to place a ban on the service, and on Monday two Uber executives were brought into custody. The events mark an additional roadblock for the start-up as it struggles to find legitimacy in regions wary of unregulated car rides.  

“Uber has been struggling with this charge in many countries, starting with the US,” wrote Romain Dillet for Tech Crunch.

“In 2010, the company had to change its original name from UberCab to Uber as taxi companies didn’t want to create any confusion.”

UberPop was launched in France in February 2014, and is the French version of UberX  (confusingly, UberX in France is the equivalent of Uber in the United States). The company has faced  major backlash from threatened taxi drivers since its arrival.

Abdelkader Morghad, a representative of the French taxi union FTI, told the Week magazine that many taxi drivers, who each pay thousands of euros for their license, have lost between 30 to 40 per cent of their income because of Uber.

But although last week’s protests were vehement enough to prompt the most recent ban, French officials have had their eyes on Uber for at least several months. French police originally began investigating the company as early as November 2014, and in March around 25 police officers raided the company’s Paris office, seizing emails, documents, and smartphones used by Uber drivers, Le Monde reported.

Now police say that the company is concealing digital documents. Although there is no direct link between the protests and the executives’ arrest, observers say it is difficult to rule out a connection between the incidents.

UberPop has been illegal in France since January 2015, but it has proven difficult to enforce the ban as the company reportedly pays the fines issued to its drivers and encourages them to keep working. On Saturday, the Paris police department announced that it will dispatch 200 additional officers to enforce the regulations against Uber.

Uber spokesman Thomas Meister said the firm had contested the law under which his company had been ruled illegal, and accused the interior minister of superseding the normal legal process by issuing the additional ban.

"The way things work in a state of law is that it's for the justice to judge whether something is legal or illegal," he told Reuters.

Uber officials insisted they would continue to operate until France's highest court rules on the service.

Bernard Cazeneuve, France's interior minister, called their attitude "cynical and arrogant", the BBC reported. He also claimed that Uber could face charges of "illicit transportation of people" under article 40 of the country's penal code, which is punishable by a €300,000 fine and two years in prison.

Despite the minister’s ardent opposition to the company’s operation, the government did not implement the protesters’ main demand: a block on the smartphone app that allows UberPop to operate its service. That, officials conceded, would require a decision by the courts.

UberPop has also been banned in Brussels, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, and Spain, among others.

Thibaut Simphal, the Uber CEO for France, and Pierre-Dimitri Gore-Coty, the CEO for Western Europe, remain in custody for questioning. Under French law, the men can be held for up to 48 hours without being charged. 

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