Around 100 independent taxi drivers showed up outside Uber's Paris headquarters this morning to protest the company's recent decision to reduce its rates in the French capital and slash its minimum fare by 20 percent.
An additional 300 drivers gathered among the honking sedans to voice their anger over the cuts, which will see the minimum Uber fare drop from eight euros ($9) to five euros ($5.6) per ride.
Uber informed drivers about the cuts on Friday, via email. Soon after the news came out, disgruntled chauffeurs converged on Porte Maillot, near the Champs Élysées, which was already the scene of anti-Uber protests this summer. By Monday, drivers had formed their own labor union and organized Tuesday's rally.
Brandishing "Uber m'a tuer" (Uber killed me) stickers and chanting "Uber assassin!" (Uber murderer!), drivers demonstrated outside the company's offices, which were guarded by several dozen French riot police.
"We can't survive on these kinds of rates," explained Farid Aieche, one of the leaders of the newborn union. Dressed in the traditional black suit worn by French chauffeurs, Farid said his career dream had been "shattered" as a result of the fare cuts. He and his colleagues want Uber to raise the minimum fare to 15 euros ($17) — the minimum, they say, to break even.
Being a chauffeur in France can be an expensive career choice, with drivers covering all costs — from the purchase or rental of the car down to the complimentary bottles of water they keep on hand for customers.
Uber classifies its drivers as "partners," not employees, and the San Fransisco-based transportation network company says it merely connects passengers with drivers in exchange for a commission.
"Uber is engaging in [price] dumping, which is illegal in France," explained Mohammed Radi, a spokesman for the new union. "Today we're operating at a loss because of fares that were imposed on us by Uber. Uber is a middle-man, not a transport company, and therefore, they should consult with us before they set tariffs. Friday's decision was completely unilateral, which is why it was important for us to unionize," Radi told VICE News.
When contacted by VICE News Tuesday, Uber said the price drop would ultimately prove profitable for drivers. The company believes that lower fares will translate into increased demand, and that drivers will earn more under the new tariffs.
The company also said that those protesting Tuesday represented "only one percent of the partner-drivers currently using the Uber application." Many of the drivers, the company claimed, have responded positively to Friday's announcement.
Uber told VICE News that the company would maintain an "outstretched hand" policy and would seek to "educate" disgruntled drivers as to the benefits of the drop in prices.
In the email it sent to its drivers, Uber referenced a survey of the impact of new fares in New York, where the introduction of lower rates proved profitable for both the drivers and the company. "Comparing the New York transport market to the one in Paris is completely idiotic," said a driver named Jonathan. "New York or no New York, I can tell you that, on Saturday, I worked for 11 hours and made 180 euros ($205) gross. After my operating costs, there was nothing left."
Companies similar to Uber operating in Paris — such as Chauffeursprivés.com and AlloCab — have also announced cut rates for their passengers. But for Radi, Uber is mostly to blame for the trend because it "calls the shots when it comes to transport in Paris."
Many of the city's independent chauffeurs, he explained, have little choice but to work for the company, because of its monopoly. Radi also explained that, with drivers lining up to work for the company, disgruntled chauffeurs are often left feeling voiceless.
Two weeks ago, France's Constitutional Council upheld a ban on Uber's peer-to-peer ride-sharing service UberPOP, which allows non-professional drivers to offer their car for hire at budget rates. Many of the drivers protesting Tuesday believe that the company has slashed its prices in an attempt to hang on to a client base that got hooked on cheap rides.
"We've become UberPOP [drivers], driving people around for five euros ($5.7). But we're not driving [budget cars], our overheads are much higher," explained a driver who preferred to remain anonymous.
Some protesters said that Uber had deactivated the accounts of several drivers who attended protests, using geolocation. VICE News was not able to verify this information in time for publication.
"I came out of unemployment to start this, but now I can't keep my head above water," explained Lamine [not his real name], an independent driver since April. "It doesn't make a difference whether I'm here or at work. I lose money when I'm driving."
Lamine told VICE News he was thinking of giving up driving if the situation with Uber doesn't improve.
Around 2:00pm, Radi and Aieche were finally invited into the building to meet with a representative from Uber. Speaking to the tired and impatient crowd following their meeting, the two union leaders explained that Uber had agreed to meet with the union Thursday to negotiate fares, since no company officials were in the office Tuesday.
Following the announcement, some of the drivers decided to head over to Porte Maillot to join the roadblock there, while others remained outside the Uber headquarters, disappointed with the outcome of the day and pessimistic about Thursday's meeting.
Union representatives are due to meet with representatives from the French Ministry of Economy and Finance on Wednesday to discuss their claims.
Follow Pierre Longeray on Twitter: @PLongeray
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