NICE,France—As a massive protest by taxi drivers against the Uber online car service erupted all over France Thursday, nowhere was the fury more palpable than in the resort town of Nice, where official taxis—according to some reports—cost more than anywhere else on the planet.
Shocking images of Paris police in riot gear subduing taxi drivers setting fire to Uber cars, fighting with Uber drivers and blocking airports, train stations, motorways and tramway lines in some of the bigger cities in the country dominated French TV.
The cabbies are livid over what they say is unfair competition from unlicensed UberPop drivers.
Somehow it made sense that Courtney Love Cobain landed Thursday in France, the world’s number one tourist destination, just in time to become at the center of the action, live tweeting and Instagramming when the car she took from Charles de Gaulle airport was attacked with pipes and rocks.
“They've ambushed our car and are holding our driver hostage,” Love tweeted. “They’re beating the cars with metal bats. This is France?? I'm safer in Baghdad.”
Love demanded the intervention of French President François Hollande, and later posted a photo of herself having “escaped” on the back of a motorcycle.
More than 70 cars were damaged, at least ten people were arrested, and at least seven policemen were injured, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said on French TV.
He ordered an immediate crackdown on UberPop (the cheapest Uber service), though enforcement of past bans has not been especially effective.
The wall-to-wall coverage would seem to indicate that the angriest people in France were the old-school cabbies. Not necessarily.
A lot of rage came from those who have been passengers in official taxis over the years, especially in the south of France where the scenic 15- or 20-minute ride from Nice International Airport to the town center can cost up to $60, especially if you’re a naïve tourist or elderly.
After decades of putting up with France’s taxi monopolies, there was a distinct sense of 1789 in the air, as if the taxi drivers were a sort of thug aristocracy and the people were calling for their heads on pikes.
“I just won’t take a taxi here unless it’s an absolute emergency,” said a British real estate agent in Nice whose mother is French.
Like many people interviewed, he asked that his name not be used because of recent incidents such as those involving local taxi drivers who placed orders with UberPop drivers, then showed up in groups and threatened violence.
“Besides charging ridiculous prices, they can be impossible to deal with,” the real estate agent said of old-style cabbies. “One time I simply refused to pay the price the [driver] asked for when he took me to the wrong place. When I said no, he got out of the car and looked as if was about to square off with me. I was ready to fight but fortunately it didn’t come to that.”
Complaints by France’s taxi drivers that they’re being unfairly squeezed out by Uber drivers—who they say don’t have to pay the same taxes and medallion fees that can run as high as $270,000—weren’t cutting it with some locals, as well as Uber and UberPop drivers themselves.
In fact, France’s Nouvel Obs reported in December how basically one company, G7, has long retained a near radio-taxi monopoly, complicating and ultimately weakening the taxi drivers’ contention that they are simply victims of Uber.
G7 was founded by the socialist André Rousselet, who was François Mitterrand’s cabinet director. His son Nicolas runs the company today.
Taxi Riviera in Nice, which is part of G7, had no comment Thursday when called by the Daily Beast.
Serge Metz, CEO of G7, told the AP that French taxis could make improvements, particularly in quality of service, but said that the low-cost UberPop drivers were making it impossible for their drivers.
“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,” Metz said.
UberPop drivers disagreed.
“We aren’t in competition with the taxi drivers,” said Marc, 62, of Nice who asked to be identified as “Marc Uber.” “My passengers are almost all students and I also get lot of elderly people going to doctor’s appointments. We get people who can’t afford taxis and would normally take a bus. It’s a completely different market.”
Carole Raphaelle Davis, a half-French, half-American actress and animal rights activist who lives six months of the year in Nice, disagrees with drivers like Marc and with those cheering on Uber in France.
“The issue is really about workers’ rights,” Davis said. “Only in Europe are taxi drivers trained in CPR, have clean licenses, don't drive drunk, don't kidnap people etc. It is a career and they have dignity, paid leave, health insurance, paternal and maternal leave, pensions, like waiters do. Uber drivers are such a threat to this industry. It's just cheap labor. They are scabs.”
Davis also said not to underestimate French taxi drivers.
“People will get cheaper rides, yes, but I don't expect French workers to put up with it and fully expect a grève générale (general strike). I place my bet on the French taxi drivers and the incredibly effective French workers’ unions.”
In January 2014, the French government enacted a law requiring Uber and other upstart car services like Snapcar and Le Car to wait 15 minutes before picking up a customer, a rule that is rarely followed and difficult to enforce, according to industry executives like Snapcar CEO Dave Ashton.
Many French people don’t realize that Uber has different levels of service. UberPop is just the cheapest option. Uber also offers a “black car” service, similar to black cars in New York City.
Uber’s black car drivers adhere to the same regulations and pay the same taxes and social charges as French taxi drivers. With Uber they have a platform allowing more customers to find them, and because French radio taxis set the meter running long in advance of the actual pick-up, even Uber black cars, which charge only for the ride, often are competitively priced, or cheaper.
Yet Uber’s black car drivers say they are being targeted along with the UberPop drivers.
“It’s a nightmare,” said David, a Uber black car driver hired by The Daily Beast in Nice Thursday morning. “I had a rock thrown through my window last week at the airport. If it had hit a baby in the back seat, it could have been killed.”
David picked up two clients in Cannes at 4 a.m. who hoped to avoid problems at the airport by getting there early.
But even though David got them there at 4:35 a.m., the taxi drivers already had it blocked.
His customers had to exit the cab with their suitcases and walk half a mile to the airport terminal.
“Our government is useless,” he said. “The police aren’t doing anything. I just want to be able to make enough so my kids have a good life, but to do that with all the taxes and charges we pay I’d have to work 18 hours a day. But the government won’t recognize that times have changed and we need to adapt. I want to leave France.”
Many French (the comments on the Uber protests on articles in Nice-Matin are especially vehement) and longtime expats say the official cab drivers have long enjoyed a monopoly and act, in the words of a number of people interviewed by The Daily Beast, like “the Mafia” —never more so than on Thursday.
“If French Muslims pulled this shit they'd be in front of a terror tribunal before you could say bonjour,” said Jeanne Oliver, a former New York City assistant district attorney who has lived in Nice for 15 years and writes the French Riviera Traveller blog.
Marion, a Parisian-born longtime resident of a home in the hills above Cagnes-sur-Mer, which lies just west of Nice, said she deliberately arranges for her luggage to be lost when flying into the Nice airport.
“That way, I take a bus home and have my luggage delivered later,” she said. “I live way up a hill and it’s too hard to walk it with suitcases. But the [drivers] charge me a fortune for the ride and if I ever question the price they get very belligerent.”
A Paris-born clothing designer who asked that only her first name, Suzanne, be used, moved to Nice seven years ago.
“This whole situation sums up everything that's wrong with the attitude of many in the service and tourist industry in Paris and on the Côte d'Azur,” she said.
“There's a pervasive short-sighted, hateful, resentful and peasant-like attitude to business, foreigners and tourists. I sympathize with the taxi drivers to a certain extent.
“However, if they banded together rather than staging these violent protests, they could set up their own app with loyalty bonuses and such and perhaps even make it better than Uber. But because they're mostly such rude rip-off merchants and thugs, they’re just making things worse for themselves.”
Twitter was awash Thursday with worried comments from those who have already booked their summer vacations in France, not to mention the ones already here, like Love.
Joan P. White, the director of the Paris Fashion Institute, where young men and women come from all over the world in June to study with top designers, said her students were “horrified.”
“This is Men’s Fashion Week and they can’t believe the government would allow this to happen in this beautiful city,” White said. “This has to stop.”
Update: Late Thursday night, French President François Hollande weighed in, denouncing the "unacceptable violence" of the taxi drivers, but saying he understood their exasperation. Then he said UberPop ought to be "dissolved and declared illegal." It is perhaps worth noting that Hollande is the most unpopular president in modern French history.