French taxi drivers were out in force in Paris and beyond today, united by one common enemy: Uber.
What began with taxi drivers blocking roads to stations and airports ended up in all out warfare with cars attacked and overturned, thoroughfares engulfed by fire, and Courtney Love targeted.
— Tom Séguy (@tomseguy) June 25, 2015
So what is the taxi drivers’ problem, exactly? UberPop, Uber’s ride-sharing service that connects travelers with private car owners. It effectively lets anyone become a taxi driver, with no regulation or licensing, and drives the costs of transport down. Local taxi drivers see it as unfair and unbalanced, an accusation that has been levied at Uber in many other cities around the world too. “One rule for us, another rule for them,” is the general gist of the complaint.
UberPop has been available in Paris and other cities for a while already, but earlier this month the service launched in Marseille, Nantes, and Strasbourg, leading to a number of local protests from taxi drivers. These escalated, too, when a handful of Marseille taxi drivers booked an UberPop car and hijacked it.
These actions come as a result of a perceived threat from a major corporation — one that masquerades as a scrappy startup — that has ridden into town and threatened the livelihood of local workers.
With $6 billion in funding so far, and likely more to come, Uber has emerged as a formidable force as it looks to disrupt an age-old industry. It has hired lobbyists to peck away at politicians and muscle its way into the fabric of towns and cities across hundreds of countries. As a result of this, Uber’s reputation has been tarnished, a situation that has not been aided by its (mis)use of customer data and executives who suggest that it should dig up dirt on journalists in reaction to critical coverage.
Yes, Uber has been public enemy number one at times, and perhaps for good reason. But these situations have a habit of turning on their heads rather swiftly. With the right conditions, of course.
UberPop’s legal status has been challenged in France previously, and last October a law was passed that seemingly banned the practice of connecting customers with unregistered drivers. However, Uber continued to flout the law and won a temporary reprieve in a Paris court earlier this year. But as a result of the protests today, France’s interior minister publicly backed a nationwide ban on UberPop.
Sympathy and marketing
So taxi drivers may win some battles, and Uber others, but the longer the hostility and violence continues, it’s difficult not to see a rise in sympathy for Uber. Indeed, the antics that unfolded in France today is playing into Uber’s hands in many ways, as the company ends up looking like the victim — whether that is the case or not.
Regardless of what happens in France from a legislation perspective, in the longer term, Uber wins. This is perhaps the best marketing Uber could ask for — media the world over are splashing the ugly scenes emerging from France across their websites and YouTube channels, and their readers and viewers will ask: “What are these protests about? Cheaper taxis? Great, show me where to download the app!”
Last summer, London faced similar protests from local cabbies. Though things didn’t escalate to the extent of what we’re seeing in France, Uber ended up doing very well out of it — the company reported a 850 percent rise in sign-ups and its best day ever for new potential customers. Yes, the protests were perhaps the best publicity a company could ask for. And speaking purely anecdotally, I can say that Uber has continued to grow since then and is a very popular service in the capital, talked about constantly by people who normally take very little interest in a heavily VC-funded company headquartered on the other side of the Atlantic.
Regardless of the rights and wrongs of the way Uber goes about its business, and regardless of how many cabbies it angers, the bottom line is people like the convenience of a taxi in their pocket and, ultimately, cheaper cab fares.
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