Angry Paris cabbies vow to keep up strike pressure

Taxi drivers on strike stand near the Eiffel tower as they protest in Paris on Feb 10, 2014. Paris taxi drivers vowed Wednesday to push on with strikes that caused logjams on city streets and at airports, despite the damage done to their already ques
Taxi drivers on strike stand near the Eiffel tower as they protest in Paris on Feb 10, 2014. Paris taxi drivers vowed Wednesday to push on with strikes that caused logjams on city streets and at airports, despite the damage done to their already questionable reputation. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

PARIS (AFP) - Paris taxi drivers vowed Wednesday to push on with strikes that caused logjams on city streets and at airports, despite the damage done to their already questionable reputation.

Paris taxis have been carrying out strikes since Monday in protest over the growing use of minicabs, which they say are cutting into their business.

Taxi drivers in France have long been protected by strict licensing limits that cause much grumbling among Paris residents over a dearth of available cabs and sometimes dubious customer service.

The minicabs, known in France as tourist vehicles with chauffeur (VTCs), were introduced in 2009 as an attempt to address the chronic shortfalls of taxis, particularly in Paris, the most visited city in the world.

Unlike regular taxis, they must be booked in advance and do not have the right to pick up passengers who hail them in the street.

Some 12,400 vehicles were operating as VTCs by the end of 2013, and the furious cabbies are demanding that no more be granted licenses and that stronger limits be placed on their use.

Taxi unions have called for an "indefinite strike" until the government agrees to stop issuing new registrations for VTCs.

Ms Nordine Dahmane, the head of the FO-Taxis union, warned that drivers were ready to take action "everywhere and anywhere".

On Wednesday, some 120 taxis were blocking pick-up spots at Orly airport south of Paris and a convoy was slowing traffic from Charles de Gaulle airport north of the capital.

A protest late Tuesday at the iconic Place de la Concorde in central Paris saw 64 taxi drivers arrested for blocking traffic, but they were released without charge.

About 200 protesting drivers had gathered at Place de la Concorde and overnight the same number had protested at the nearby Place de la Madeleine.

Hoping to head off further chaos, President Francois Hollande's government on Tuesday named Socialist lawmaker Thomas Thevenoud as a mediator.

On Wednesday, he appealed for calm, saying the message from taxi drivers "has been heard loud and clear".

"I call on everyone to gather around the table with me, to talk, to listen, to compromise and to find a new system," he told BFM-TV.

Mr Thevenoud has been mandated to come up with a system of "balanced competition" between taxi drivers and VTCs within two months.

Licenses are granted by the government for free, but in limited numbers, and are sold amongst drivers for around 230,000 euros (S$398,000).

The license to operate a VTC costs only 100 euros.

"I was in debt for 10 years to pay for my licence," Mr Thierry Touati, a taxi driver for nearly two decades, told AFP in central Paris.

"The VTCs are tapping directly into our customers. The government should buy back our licenses so that everyone is equal," he said.

"We're moaners because our jobs are stressful!" Mr Touati added when asked about the potential damage to the reputation of cabbies.

The government responded to the taxi drivers' complaints in December by issuing a decree restricting mini-cabs from picking up passengers within 15 minutes of a reservation being made.

But the measure was suspended last week by the Council of State pending a ruling on whether it is in the public interest.

The taxi unions are calling for VTCs to be limited by a 30-minute delay and a minimum fare of 60 euros - which would effectively close them out of the market for trips within central Paris.

There are some 55,000 taxis registered in France, including 20,000 on the streets of Paris, compared with about 22,600 licensed taxis and 50,700 minicabs in London.