opinion : Helen Hickey

Uber has won, says French cabbie

Helen Hickey

JULY 3 ― Will last week’s violent protests in Paris stop Uber? 

Two Californian-based entrepreneurs hatched the idea behind Uber while struggling to hail a cab one chilly night in the City of Light. Seven years on, during which we witnessed the “Uberification” of 300 cities worldwide, Paris is now one of Uber’s largest markets — it’s also the one giving it the hardest ride.

Thursday’s cabbie strike against France’s UberPOP, an extra-low-cost ride-hailing service, produced enough shameful footage — burning tyres, overturned cars, riot police and tourists stranded at airports — to force the French government to take action.

Two UberPOP executives were arrested and charged this week with running an illegal and unsafe business that does not respect French social security and traffic safety legislation.

Laws passed last October made UberPOP illegal, but it still continues to operate. Its 200,000 plus users represent more than 40 per cent of Uber’s total customers (other Uber services operate under strict conditions) in France.

Several people have told me they use, or would use, the app-based UberPOP because of driver availability, cheapness and a reasonable chance of having a clean car and polite driver. Assets they say many street-hailed taxis struggle to offer.

Progress will undoubtedly triumph: the business-friendly French economy minister, Emmanuel Macron, recently used Uber as an example of how France could modernise and create more jobs for the unemployed. 

But it shouldn't come without careful consideration of the existing enterprises, and how they might be affected. French cabbies have had to operate under tight governmental reins that stretch as far back as the 1980s, under François Mitterrand’s presidency.

I asked Olivier, 46, who works an independent call-based taxi in an affluent western suburb of Paris, to explain Thursday’s “Day of Anger”:

“The violence was not justified, but the anger against the government is real because they knew full-well about the situation with Uber, but they just let it ‘rot’, it became worse and worse. Now many taxi drivers feel desperate.”

UberPOP drivers don’t hold official taxi licences — there are about 17,700 for the Paris area — and therefore “work illegally.” Lowering his voice in the cafe where we met, Olivier added: “They’re bandits.”

His annual earnings have dropped by 20 per cent since 2012, when UberPOP taxis first positioned themselves outside the same train station that the Prefecture of Versailles allocated to him in return for a monthly fee.

“But I have a colleague who has lost 40 per cent of his business because of Uber.”

Olivier’s been working as a taxi driver for nine years to support his family of four. He first had to pass and pay for the taxi exams, before finding €120,000 (RM500,397) to buy a taxi licence.  “It took me seven years to pay off the loan, I worked very hard, just like most of my colleagues. UberPOP drivers just download the app and ‘Voila!’”

“This is why we feel so angry with the government.” 

Call-based taxi owner Olivier attended the more peaceful protests at the Prefecture of Versailles. UberPOP = no taxi licence = cheap ride. Next? CafePOP = no alcohol licence = cheap drink. ― File picCall-based taxi owner Olivier attended the more peaceful protests at the Prefecture of Versailles. UberPOP = no taxi licence = cheap ride. Next? CafePOP = no alcohol licence = cheap drink. ― File picAnd the normal working week? “Thirty-five hours, of course!” He joked, referring to France’s controversial 35-hours per week labour law. “I work six or seven days per week, a minimum 80 hours at my station.” He takes bookings direct from clients via a radio network.

“This morning I left my home at 4am, and I won’t return until 9pm. I do this twice or three times a week, and sometimes more.”

What about his hourly rate? “C’est ridicule! C’est ridicule!”  (No translation required).

After paying 47 per cent social charges, 10 per cent T.V.A  (sales tax), local taxes, professional insurance, diesel, car maintenance, telephone, central radio and private health insurance, he’s left with just 25 per cent of his gross salary. A few hundred euros above France’s minimum monthly salary of €1,500 (RM6,264).

When I mentioned the reports of UberPOP drivers clearing up to €2,400 a month (the salary of a Master’s graduate here) after paying Uber’s commission and French taxes, Olivier was adamant that the government wasn’t receiving much of the latter: “What money they earn after commission is sent back to their home countries, or to the Cayman Islands, where very little tax is paid.”

What should the government be doing?

“They should take control, increase the number of ‘Boers’ who police and fine UberPOP drivers (after the strike numbers are up from 80 to 200), and get Uber to respect the law. Or cyber-control them by downloading Uber’s app to locate its drivers. It’s simple. Why don’t they do this?”

He said their radio advertising ― “How can you earn €200 this weekend, it’s easy, call Uber!” ― should also be stopped.

Contrary to the press reports, it’s not just poor immigrants from the struggling banlieues who are attracted to UberPOP. Olivier mentioned a local high school professor who was recently caught at it one evening after his classes had finished, plus a civil servant…

The French government is just too “snowed under and lax” to do anything about it, Olivier complained.

“While I condemn the scenes of violence we saw on Thursday, sadly, it’s the only way the government was going to listen.”

But it seems too little, too late for Olivier. Like many of his colleagues, he wants to quit his career as a taxi driver. The trouble is that in this post-Uber climate he can no longer sell his licence for what he originally bought it for (€120,000).  He wants the government to compensate him by buying it for the same amount, something he says they won’t do.

Quoting the French saying “Beaucoup de droits et pas de devoirs”, Olivier explained that the French government is good at making lots of laws, but not at enforcing them.

With a Gallic shrug, he announced: “It’s finished for me: Uber has won.”

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

MORE ON MMOTV