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War on Uber: 70 cars smashed in France

2015-06-26 10:11

VIOLENT STRIKE AGAINST UBER: Riot police officers stand by an overturned car during violent protest action by local taxi drivers against Uber in Paris, France. Image: AP / Michel Euler.

AP - JAMEY KEATEN AND THOMAS ADAMSON

PARIS, France - French taxi drivers were in an all-out confrontation with controversial Uber taxi service on Thursday (June 25 2015), smashing cars, setting tyres ablaze and blocking traffic.

It was claimed to be a nationwide attack that caught tourists and celebrities alike in the mayhem.

Interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve said about 70 vehicles were damaged across France in Thursday's protests; ten people were arrested.

'I'M SAFER IN BAGHDAD'

People travelling to and from Paris airports were forced to walk alongside highways; others, including a taxi being used by singer Courtney Love, were set upon by local taxi drivers.

Love tweeted: "They've ambushed our car and are holding our driver hostage. They're beating the cars with metal bats. This is France?? I'm safer in Baghdad."

STRIKE AGAINST UBER

The French government was aghast, with prime minister Manuel Valls lamenting: "These incidents give a deplorable image of our country to visitors."

Taxi drivers tried to justify their rage saying Uber's lowest-cost service, UberPop, was ruining their livelihood.

Despite repeated rulings against it and an October 2014 law that explicitly outlaws UberPop, its drivers continue to ply French roads and the American-sourced ride-hailing company is recruiting drivers and passengers.

Uber claims to have 400 000 customers a month in France.

'UBERPOP' OUTRAGE

Interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve rushed back from a trip to Marseille to meet taxi unions and said afterwards that UberPop must be shut down and its vehicles seized if caught by police carrying passengers.

Cazeneuve said he would meet UberPop officials to tell them their service was illegal: "It must, therefore, be closed. The government will never accept the law of the jungle."


Read: What is Uber doing to SA's cab industry?
He ordered a meeting of French anti-fraud officials on June 22 to put in place measures to immediately stop illegal taxis from servicing customers. Only a decision by the Justice Ministry could ban the cellphone application for UberPop, he said.


Earlier in 2015, Cazeneuve ordered an immediate ban on unlicensed drivers in the Paris region.

That didn't faze Uber France chief Thibaud Simphal, who said on RTL radio he was telling his drivers "to continue". He contended that thus far the justice system "has not demanded that UberPop be forbidden".

TORCHED TYRES, ROADS BLOCKED

Anger seethed in France with riot police chasing taxi drivers from the Paris ring road, where protesters torched tyres and swarmed on to freeway exit ramps during rush hour on the busy artery that leads to Charles de Gaulle airport.

In Toulouse, in the south-west, angry taxi drivers dumped flour on UberPop cars, tyres were burned in Nantes in the west. In Lyon, in the south-east, roads were blocked.

Singer Love, Kurt Cobain's widow, said she was ambushed while travelling from the airport but was saved by two men on a motorcycle. It wasn't clear what type of car she was riding in.

She tweeted: "Paid some guys on motorcycles to sneak us out, got chased by a mob of taxi drivers who threw rocks, passed two police and they did nothing."

She later posted a 'selfie' of herself wearing a motorcycle helmet with her two smiling rescuers.

UBER CRITICISM IN EUROPE

Uber's more-expensive livery service is still legal but a source of intense frustration for French taxi drivers, who pay tens of thousands of euros for the equivalent of medallions and who face customer complaints that they are being resistant to changes such as credit cards and geo-location.

Taxi drivers in other European countries also complain that car services such as Uber unfairly undercut them.

A judge ordered a temporary suspension in Spain; in the Netherlands a court has ruled that UberPop must stop its service. In China, its government banned drivers of private cars from offering services through a similar cellphone application.

PASSENGERS ATTACKED

Nearly 100 Uber drivers have been attacked in France in 2015, sometimes while carrying customers.

One passenger was left with a swollen face and a black eye after he took an UberPop ride over the weekend; he posted a selfie of his mangled face on Facebook, an image that quickly made the rounds through French media.

Uber spokesman Thomas Meister said: "There are people willing to do anything to stop any competition. We are only the symptom of a badly-organised market."

The French government, meanwhile, said nearly 500 cases had been filed across the country involving complaints about UberPop. Officials raised concerns for passenger safety, insisting they were not protected should their service car crash.

Violence peaked in the Paris region, where images from the city captured the rage, with an Uber car overturned, others with tyres slashed and windscreens cracked.

'MODERNITY IS NOT ILLEGAL WORK'

Fast-moving technological innovations such as smartphone apps have given the French government headaches when it comes to adapting national laws. With the French unemployment rate in double-digits, many of the jobless are looking for opportunities to work.

Even interior ministry officials acknowledged the emergence of Uber and similar services - which can feature perks such as free bottled water, polite drivers and the chance to pay by credit card - have created a competitive market that is forcing changes in the taxi industry.

Cazeneuve pushed back: "Modernity is not illegal work."  He denounced Uber and its leaders "who with arrogance apply not one of the rules of law."

Addressing a leading complaint of taxi drivers - that the authorities are not doing enough to apply the new law - ministry officials emphasised that it would take time to implement fully.

Serge Metz, CEO of the G7 taxi service, acknowledged room for improvement, especially in quality of service that taxis offer, but said unfair competition was making drivers' lives impossible.

Metz said: "This is the first time we've had a multinational so cynical that, in every country where it operates, flouts the laws in place and lobbies with an army of lawyers and lobbyists to change the laws."

NO, THIS ISN'T BAGHDAD: Riot police stand near a burned-out car during violent protest action against Uber in Paris, France. Image: AP / Michel Euler.


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