On the ground with the opposing factions of Paris’ Uber protests

The smoke has cleared, but the future remains cloudy


I've barely buckled my seatbelt before my UberPop driver lays some ground rules.

"Just to be clear, you're Amar and I'm Cyril, and we're friends," he says. "So that's what we'll say if we get stopped by the police, okay?"

I agree, and I understand his concern. Yesterday, some UberPop drivers and other private chauffeurs were attacked by unionized taxi drivers who went on strike across France, as part of a massive anti-Uber protest. Striking drivers burned tires, overturned cars, and smashed windows across Paris and other major cities on Thursday, while blocking access to airports and major train stations. France's interior minister has since ordered the Paris police to enforce a ban on UberPop, a low-cost service that pairs users with non-professional drivers, saying that all caught drivers would have their cars seized.

"I've never had a problem with the police, because I'm very discrete," Cyril, 30, tells me as we drive across town on a muggy Friday morning. He's been working as an UberPop driver for about nine months now, but only during the mornings and evenings, when he's not at his full-time job delivering groceries. He earns an extra €1,300 to €1,400 a month chauffeuring Uber users around Paris, which he says gives him a much-needed cushion to support his wife and two young children.

But he realizes that those days may now be numbered. A law passed late last year requires all chauffeurs to have a license and insurance. Cyril and other UberPop drivers are currently not obligated to have training or insurance, and do not have to pay licensing fees, which taxi unions say gives the company an unfair competitive advantage. (Taxi licenses in France can cost up to $270,000.) The French government has said that UberPop, as it currently operates, is illegal under the new law, but Uber has contested the decision and the service remains available, albeit in a legal gray zone. A constitutional court this week began hearing a case that will determine whether UberPop can continue to operate under the new laws, after months of heightening tensions between taxi drivers and Uber chauffeurs.

Recent weeks have seen a spate of attacks against Uber drivers and passengers in France. On at least two occasions in Strasbourg, taxi drivers posed as Uber customers to lure chauffeurs to remote locations and assault them. Cyril says he's never been attacked or intimidated by taxi drivers, but he's worried about falling for a similar trap, because he's not sure how much support he can count on from Uber. "There's no phone number to reach them, everything's through email," he explains. "If we were ever in a big conflict with a taxi, I don't think they would be able to respond quick enough. Physically, we have nothing to protect us."

Cyril says he understands why the taxi unions are incensed; many drivers have to take out significant loans to obtain licenses, and it can take years to pay them off. But he's also invested money of his own ("I wouldn't have bought this car if it weren't for UberPop") and disputes the notion that amateur chauffeurs like himself are stealing business from taxis.

"I think there's enough work for both Uber and taxis," he says, adding that most of his clients are young and tech-savvy, while older customers tend to prefer taxis. But he also blames cab drivers for pushing many to Uber and other ride-hailing apps. "There are certain taxis that just refuse to take people for no reason, even if their green light is on," he says. (I can confirm this is true.) Those who order taxis on their phone, he adds, have to pay for the time it takes them to arrive, so their trips always begin with a running meter. (Also true.)

"It's not logical. Technology advances, everyone has a smartphone. They just need to find a way to keep up."

uber strike

At around 11AM, Cyril drops me off near the Porte Maillot, one of the major traffic circles along the western edge of Paris. Police have blocked off every street leading into the circle, where around 50 to 60 taxis are parked in rows for another day of protests. Other demonstrations are planned in other parts of the city, but the blockades that crippled traffic yesterday have now receded.

The officers are decked out in full riot gear, but they seem to have overdressed. Groups of taxi drivers are chatting in front of a hulking convention center that overlooks the plaza, while others are lounging in their cars, feet dangling out of windows. There are no burning tires, no overturned cars, and no Uber drivers to confront.

Some taxi drivers spent the night here at Porte Maillot. Others, like Perrotin Yuhong, a 46-year-old Chinese woman with bright red hair, arrived at 3AM. "We're just asking the government to respect the law," Yuhong told me from the fully reclined seat of her taxi. "The license fees are enormous, and [UberPop drivers] don't have to pay any of that. And living here is getting more expensive for everybody — we can't breathe."

Yuhong's taxi is parked near the end of a long row of cabs. Some are draped with a French flag; others are adorned with handmade signs that read: "With Uber, I'll be sleeping in the street in six months." A slogan spray-painted on a wall in the center of the traffic circle reads: "Death to Uber."

uber strike

Yet for all the flare and protest slogans, there's very little in the way of actual protesting — probably because there aren't many people around to listen. With traffic shut off, the unions' audience is limited to tourists and businesspeople, who shuttle rollaway suitcases in and out of the convention center with little more than passing interest in the crowd outside.

Instead, the taxi drivers are figuring out how to manage their image now that their strike has been swept from the front pages. By the time I arrive, many are just learning of a terrorist attack at a factory in Lyon, where a worker was beheaded this morning by attackers. At around midday, a representative from one taxi union grabs a microphone to announce that some drivers have begun offering free rides to and from Charles De Gaulle airport, in an effort to show "solidarity" at a time of national crisis.

The representative stresses that it's entirely optional for drivers to do the same, but the announcement doesn't sit well with many. A heated debate soon unfolds. "If I'm on strike, that means I don't work," shouts one driver. "What message does that send?" Others merely shrug it off and return to their cars. No one, as far as I can tell, volunteers to participate in the PR campaign.

"The violence was necessary, because the government made it necessary."

Some drivers acknowledge that their public image took a hit yesterday, but they describe the violence as a product of government inaction.

"The government has been making promises to us for years, and they still haven't been fulfilled," says Salif, 29. "We've had several peaceful protests during these years, and the government did nothing. Now, as you saw yesterday with the government's announcements, they finally did something because of the incidents, and they wouldn't have done anything if there hadn't been incidents."

"The violence was necessary, because the government made it necessary," he adds. "And you see that today there aren't any incidents, because we see that they finally take us seriously."

Others take issue with the way the media has portrayed their strike, saying it ignores the reality of their economic hardship. "The media gives us a bad image, as if we're bad people," Yves tells me, standing in front of an anti-Uber protest poem he scribbled in marker on top of a bus stop advertisement for Tom Ford cologne. "But that violence is just a call for help. It comes from hopelessness."

Yves, 32 and tattooed, has been driving a taxi in Paris for seven years, and he says he's seen a decline of between 20 and 50 percent in his revenue since Uber arrived in 2011. Like Salif, he thinks this week's strike was essential to affect change, though he says it could've been avoided if the government had taken swifter action on UberPop's legality. "Why didn't they make a decision earlier?" he says. "Why did they wait for us to start breaking things before listening to us?"

uber strike

At around 1PM, a taxi full of oranges and bottled water pulls up to the site. Some swarm to it for relief from the heat; others decline because they're fasting for Ramadan. I decide to make my way home, and check for an Uber.

A few minutes later, a driver named Karim meets me just beyond the police blockade. As an UberX chauffeur, he's licensed as a full-time driver, with all the required training, so unlike Cyril, he doesn't have to worry about the legality of his job. Although he sympathizes with the taxi unions' demands, he remains dismayed by their tactics.

"I've never seen a strike like that in France," he says of yesterday's violence. "Not even in Algeria."

He also thinks taxi unions are overlooking the broader benefits that Uber brings. The company has come under scrutiny from unions and regulators across the globe, largely over the question of whether to treat it as a transportation service, or tech startup. In Karim's view, it's important that Uber continue to operate in any capacity, especially at a time of high unemployment among French youth. "There are a lot of young people now who work for Uber, people from the suburbs, people without diplomas, like me," he says, adding that UberPop provides easy employment to people who may not be able to afford a taxi license. "Thanks to Uber, I know a lot of people who now have enough money to feed their families."

But he agrees that the government should've taken more decisive action on UberPop. And because it didn't, it now faces a tough choice.

"They're blocked," he says as the car pulls up to my building. "On one side, you have Uber, with all the money, and on the other you have the taxis, with all the violence. And they don't know which one to side with."

"But they don't like violence, which is why I think they'll block UberPop eventually. I know they will."