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French Officials Arrest Uber Executives; Taxi Drivers Riot and Strike Saying Service is Illegal

Uber France Protest

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Last week, French authorities took a strident step in their quest to crack down on UberPOP, the country’s equivalent to UberX, by arresting Uber France CEO Thibaud Simphal and Uber Europe general manager Pierre-Dimitri Gore-Coty. The pair was charged them with several counts, including running an illegal taxi business. 

Police began their investigation of Uber in November of 2014 before raiding the company’s Paris office in March of 2015.  Both Simphal and Gore-Coty were also charged with concealing digital documents.  The executives were kept overnight and prosecutors set a trial date for late September.

The arrests come in the wake of protests against the company by French taxi drivers who reportedly flipped UberPOP cars, burned tires, blocked the entrances to airports, and became violent with UberPOP drivers.  A total of 70 cars were damaged in the protest.   According to USA Today the protests affected musician Courtney Love, who had her UberPOP car vandalized during the protests.  On Twitter, Love insensitively said: “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.”

Wall Street Journal painted a picture of indifference from the company and claimed that while near riots occurred in the streets, workers in the Uber office “calmly played ping-pong” while “working on their laptops on low-slung couches near the foosball table.”

Many of the charges the Uber executives face were created specifically to target Uber.  The charge that Uber “puts passengers in touch with drivers who do not have professional licenses” is new and carries a penalty of up to €300,000 ($332,832) plus two years in prison.  For the past few months, police have been issuing fines to drivers of UberPOP cars, fines the company ultimately pays. 202 UberPOP drivers have been fined and one was given a 15-day suspended prison sentence.

Uber remains defiant and has refused to shut down its UberPOP service.  Uber France lawyers are currently fighting the new laws in French Constitutional Court and the company has also asked the European Union to use its authority to intercede.  The company claims that elements of the law violate the French Constitution and various European treaties.

In a statement, the company said:

“We are keen to continue talking to the French government about the regulatory framework for services like Uber.  There is a way forward—with regulation that is focused on the needs and safety of the public, while also allowing more people to take advantage of these new economic possibilities.”

Speaking to WSJ,one French official scoffed at the rationale for Uber continuing its UberPOP service in the face of the new laws, saying, “You can’t steal just because you think theft shouldn’t be illegal.”

In an op-ed for Bloomberg View, writer Leonid Bershidsky argued that “France is right to mistrust Uber.”  Bershidsky says that while he once saw Uber as a victim of a legal system that could not keep up with technology, recent arguments and Uber’s own actions have caused him to rethink his stance:

Yet Uber is not just a victim; it has invited much of the trouble. Katherine Teh-White, managing director of management consulting firm Futureye, says new businesses need to build up what she calls a “social license to operate”:

‘This is the agreement by society or a community that an organization’s practices and products are acceptable and aligned with society’s values. If society begins to feel that an industry or company’s actions are no longer acceptable, then it can withdraw its agreement, demand new and costly dimensions, or simply ‘cancel’ the license. And that’s basically what you’re seeing in Europe and other parts of the world with Uber.’

Uber’s “social license” is questionable at best.

UberPOP has been banned in Brussels and the Netherlands.  In South Korea, the government indicted Uber CEO Travis Kalanick for violating transportation law.  In Milan, a judge recently deemed UberPOP illegal.

UberX has faced its own problems here in America, but the legal system has yet to fully address the questions posed by the on-demand economy.  


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