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Uber drivers stage protest over French response to taxi strike

Hundreds of chauffeurs stage 'funeral march' after government cracks down on ride-hailing apps

Amar Toor

A group of chauffeurs for Uber and other ride-hailing companies staged a protest in Paris today over the French government's response to last week's taxi strike. The drivers staged what organizers called a "funeral march" for their profession, which they believe to be under siege after the prime minister moved to crack down on ride-hailing apps last week.

Hundreds of chauffeurs gathered outside the Montparnasse train station in Paris today, blocking surrounding streets with their cars before marching north toward the Invalides complex, near the Seine river. There were no signs of violence or aggression as of noon local time, though riot police had to escort a taxi that inexplicably became trapped in the middle of a circle of black cars. Some protesters threw objects at the taxi, but they were quickly reprimanded with whistles and wagging fingers from others. Many cars were adorned with French flags or signs criticizing Prime Minister Manuel Valls, and they blared their horns nonstop as they continued toward Invalides.

"Mr. Valls guillotined us."

Today's demonstration comes after thousands of taxi drivers blocked roadways and burned tires in Paris and other cities last week, calling for an end to Uber and other non-taxi services that allow passengers to book rides with independent professional chauffeurs — a class of companies known in France as "voitures de tourisme avec chauffeur" (VTC). After meeting with taxi union heads, Valls on Friday announced measures to tighten restrictions on the VTC industry and force companies like Uber to stop using certain salaried drivers. The measures were greeted with cautious optimism from taxi unions, which ended the three-day strike, but they've raised the ire of chauffeur companies.

"Mr. Valls guillotined us," says Joseph François, president of Alternative Mobilité Transport (AMT), the chauffeur association that organized today's protest.

AMT's ten members are all companies that operate so-called LOTI vehicles — a designation for cars that carry at least two passengers. The companies hire drivers on full-time contracts (unlike VTC drivers, who are largely independent), and in recent years have begun relying heavily on partnerships with companies like Uber. Last week, the prime minister sent letters to Uber and other French app companies, ordering them to stop allowing LOTI drivers on their platform.

The decision was seen as a concession to the taxi unions, who argued that by working with Uber, LOTI companies were circumventing a recent law that limits their activity to group transport. Drivers have begun using LOTI licenses to work for companies like Uber, in part, because the requirements are less stringent than standard VTC licenses. But François says the law is ambiguous, and the economic costs would be catastrophic. He says Uber and other apps account for 70 percent of all LOTI business.

"For us, this decision was made under pressure, under constraints," François says, referring to the influence of taxi unions. "That is what we are denouncing."

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(Amar Toor)

Today's protest was launched with support from Uber and similar French apps like Chauffeur-Privé, which shut down its service for the duration of the four-hour march. For the apps, LOTI cars represent about 20 to 30 percent of their business. With 1.4 million users and 12,000 drivers across the country, Uber is the largest ride-hailing service in France. There are around 60,000 taxis operating in France.

Uber France sent emails to inform its drivers of today's protest, a source close to the company said, and it has sought to officially distance itself from the demonstration. But the email, obtained by The Verge, clearly urges Uber drivers to participate in the protest, claiming that "your future, that of your business, and that of your family are in danger." The email goes on to say that the government's proposals put 10,000 jobs at risk, and that drivers must "react quickly and make themselves heard clearly, in order to protect our sector." Uber declined to comment on today's protest.

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(Amar Toor)

François says he expects a wide range of VTC drivers and app makers to participate in today's protest, saying the government's moves threaten an "entire ecosystem" of economic activity. In addition to the LOTI restriction, the government said it would begin enforcing a 2014 rule that requires all VTC drivers to return to a garage between fares — a provision passed as part of a broader law aiming to protect taxis from Uber and other VTC services. There appeared to be a mix of both VTC and LOTI drivers on Wednesday morning, and some exchanged in heated debates over how to regulate the industry.

But not all Uber drivers are onboard with the march, underscoring the fractured nature of the company's French workforce. In recent months, Uber drivers have staged protests outside the company's Paris offices over fare reductions, and some have created their own Uber-like app. Some VTC associations said they would boycott today's protest.

"Companies like Uber make vast amounts of money, while expecting drivers to provide a service for peanuts," Sayah Baaroun, head of the VTC union Unsa SCP-VTC, which is not participating in today's protest, told France 24. "All they want to do is expand, regardless of the impact. They are capitalist sharks, pure and simple."

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"Manuel renders my job precarious" (Amar Toor)

For Uber, the protest marks the latest chapter in an ongoing battle with taxi unions and French regulators. The government banned the company's low-cost UberPop service last year, following widespread taxi protests, and arrested two executives on charges of operating an illegal transport scheme.

François says his group wants to work with taxis, app makers, and the government to clarify existing laws and develop solutions that work for all parties. He even agrees with taxi demands that the government reimburse their licenses, which are sold for around €200,000 on the secondary market, and have declined in value with the rise of Uber. But he says the government's recent moves to protect taxis' monopoly ignore the reality of a rapidly changing market.

"They are going to destroy an entire ecosystem in order to stop an evolution that is unstoppable," François says. "We cannot return to the Stone Age. It's just impossible."