Hundreds of taxi drivers jammed roads around Paris and other big French cities on Monday in a protest against what they called unfair competition from private cabs, despite moves by the Socialist government to protect them.
In action that highlighted the problem facing President François Hollande as he promises to loosen business regulation, massed taxis driving at a snail’s pace snarled roads from the two main Paris airports into the city and staged similar demonstrations elsewhere to demand a clampdown on the emergence of private taxi services.
Mr Hollande, due to outline moves to ease labour costs and red tape on Tuesday, has promised a “simplification shock” for business to help boost a sluggish economic recovery and generate jobs. But the government remains prone to imposing new restraints in the face of resistance by vested interests.
Late last month, in a bid to placate the traditional taxi industry, the government issued a decree that obliged operators of private chauffeured cars, mostly operating via smartphone booking applications, to wait 15 minutes between receiving an order and picking up the customer.
In another move that could restrict business, this week the National Assembly is scheduled to give its assent to a new housing bill that includes measures to limit the ability of owners of secondary properties to rent them on short-term lets to tourists, such as those that do so via sites including Airbnb. It is intended to help ameliorate a shortage of long-term rental properties, especially in Paris, but the move has also been demanded by the hotel industry upset by growing competition from private owners.
The big taxi operators are demanding that a longer delay for pickups should be imposed on their new competitors – as well as calling for a cut in value added tax. Traditional taxi drivers, many grouped under a handful of big operators, mostly pay heavily to acquire a limited number of licences allowing them to pick up passengers on the street.
But in recent years “tourist cars with chauffeurs”, or VTCs, have been allowed to enter the market and are growing rapidly. In a leaflet distributed online, the protesting taxi unions attacked “the multinational VTCs (financed by Google and Goldman Sachs) that are destroying our jobs”.
The VTC operators, which do not need the licenses, include Uber, the US-based car operator, as well as a number of French start-ups. They argue that there is a shortage of taxis in France and say opening up the market can create thousands of jobs.
Yves Weisselberger, a founder of the French online booking company SnapCar, says the 18,000 licensed taxis in Paris are about the same in number as licensed black cabs in London. But there are only 3,500 private cabs, compared with 40,000 “minicabs” in London.
“There is a shortage of supply. Taxis are not going to lose business,” he says. The private cab operators are challenging the 15-minute rule in the administrative courts. “It is not at all consistent with President Hollande’s ‘simplification shock’. This type of measure is against the interests of customers and the economy,” says Mr Weisselberger.
Similarly, agencies offering tourist rentals in private apartments have protested against measures proposed in the housing bill requiring owners of secondary properties to get permission from neighbours and the local authority to do short-term lets.
They argue it will lead to thousands of properties currently available to tourists being withdrawn from the market, rather than being offered instead to local residents for long-term rental, as the authorities intend.
“These places respond to a demand for a new type of tourism, especially for families. It’s growing every day,” says Eric Straumann, an opposition member of parliament who specialises in tourism. “I’m not sure the measures will have the effect they want.”
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