As the French celebrate their national holiday, le quatorze juillet, they may want to consider whether France is living up to its national motto—“Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.”
Known in English-speaking countries as Bastille Day, the fourteenth of July celebrates the historic storming of the Bastille prison—the first defiant blow of the Revolution against French absolutism. Yet, today, the French are turning their back on that legacy of liberty and embracing the sort of authoritarian control they once abominated. The recent UberPOP riots outside Paris and the government’s response to the anti-Uber violence expose the tight reins of special interests that direct the French state and the readiness of French politicians to subordinate France’s revolutionary ideals to the transient popular will.
Rioting Against…Car Sharing
On Thursday, June 25, almost 3,000 French taxi drivers, coordinated by the FNDT and UNT national taxi unions, turned their cars into instruments of protest, effectively stopping transportation by private car services in and out of Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports and around the country.
As tires burned, taxi drivers stopped suspected UberPOP drivers, overturned cars, and held drivers—and their passengers—hostage on the road. In Strasbourg, at least two Uber drivers received summonses to remote locations, where taxi drivers ambushed and assaulted them and vandalized their cars.
Singer and actress Courtney Love, traveling to Paris, live-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.”
The official French response only fed the Uber pyre. French President Francois Hollande condemned the violence but insisted that the demonstrations were completely “understand[able].” Both Hollande and Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve called for an end to UberPOP’s “illegal” activities in France.
Using Government to Undercut the Competition
Hollande and Cazeneuve can accuse UberPOP of operating illegally thanks to a law passed in October of last year. “La loi Thévenoud” made it illegal to run an operation facilitating for-profit exchanges between non-professional drivers and passengers. Violations of the law could incur a €300,000 fine ($321,889) and two years of jail time. The legislation specifically targeted UberPOP, which operates in France like Lyft in the United States, by connecting non-professional drivers with paying passengers.
Notably, the law also outlawed the feature that gives Uber, and other app-based car services, a distinct advantage over traditional taxis—the geolocalization map that allows Uber users to identify the closest Uber and that estimates arrival time before the user even chooses to reserve a car. According to Le Monde, the French legislature included this provision to “conserve the cruising monopoly” of traditional taxis. The legislature also sought to regulate Uber’s prices, counteracting Uber’s “economic terrorism.”
Like taxi drivers in New York, San Francisco, and other U.S. cities, French taxi drivers benefit from a highly regulated system that exists to close out competition. Yet, while this system protects taxis from new entrants, it was unable—as in the United States—to prevent Uber’s innovative, price-efficient model from bulldozing a new way into the car service industry.
No wonder French taxi drivers, who suffer under burdensome licensure requirements that can cost as much as $270,000 in Paris, are desperate to kill Uber. Even French VTC drivers—professional, non-taxi drivers—must participate in a three-month training, which, according to Uber France General Director Thibaud Simphal, can cost as much as €6,000, an unaffordable sum for most prospective Uber drivers.
The French legislature may write the law to benefit the inflexible, unprogressive taxi establishment, but the French courts appear less willing to apply the law unequally. Two Parisian courts in December, 2014 and February of this year declined to ban UberPOP, allowing Uber to continue building UberPOP’s 400,000-strong user-base. In May, the Constitutional Council upheld the Thévenoud law’s geolocalization provision, but put off the question of UberPOP’s legitimacy to September, leaving the car service in an apparent legal grey zone.
Innovation Is Economic Terrorism
Until the smell of burning tires wafted toward Paris. Although taxi strikers’ signs with “Death to Uber” and “Uber go home” appeared directed at Uber and its drivers, French politicians heard the message loud and clear: The “uberization of the world” and the “economic terrorism” that accompanies it must stop—at all costs.
After meeting with taxi unions the day of the riots, Cazeneuve elected to champion illiberal minority rule, inequality based on special privilege, and the exclusive brotherhood of the cartel—while claiming to oppose the “law of the jungle.” He promised that UberPOP vehicles would be “systematically seized” and the service “would be closed.” So much for the court’s opinion. Clearly, the more than 100,000 Uber fans who took to Twitter and Facebook to protest the protest, even promoting a “strike” against taxis, saw that the minister was letting special interests dictate the law. Adieu, liberty, equality, fraternity. Au revoir, democracy.
The French government’s unequal, illiberal application of the law degenerated further four days later. Investigators indicted Thibaud Simphal, and Uber’s general director for Western Europe, Pierre-Dimitri Gore-Coty, for deceptive commercial practices, complicity in illegal taxi operations, and illegal treatment of personal data. While the two directors were held overnight and face trial in late September, those who assaulted the liberty of Uber drivers and their passengers escaped punishment. Although 70 vehicles were damaged in the protests, only 10 rioters were arrested nationwide.
Cazeneuve and company’s response to the riots conveys a ringing warning. France will not defend the American model of destructive innovation and the customer’s freedom to choose when they conflict with entrenched interests—even if preserving those groups’ privileges menaces the interests and safety of French citizens without an influential brotherhood at their back.
Uber understands—now. Friday, July 3, Uber suspended UberPOP “primarily to assure the safety of Uber drivers.” As Uber executives Simphal and Gore-Coty watch the triumphant Bastille Day fireworks, no doubt they will paraphrase Courtney Love’s tweet: “This is France?? I’m safer in (Communist) China,” where by the way, Uber faces a competitor with 80 percent market share in the private-car sector, Didi Kuaidi.
Didi plans to fight off Uber not with bats and a government gun, but with happy passengers and fertile investment dollars—millions and billions of them. Now, that’s a liberal response worthy of French imitation.