Uber suspends controversial UberPop service in France: Spokesman

A taxi displaying a poster that reads, "Stop Uber", during a protest in the city of Marseille, France. PHOTO: AFP

PARIS (AFP) - Uber said on Friday it was suspending its controversial low-cost UberPop service in France, six months after it was banned by the government and following a spate of strikes by taxi drivers.

"Uber has decided to immediately suspend UberPOP in France," the US company said in a statement, adding that it was waiting for a ruling on whether the service is legal, due by September.

The decision to suspend the service "follows the acts of violence of the past two weeks", said Uber in the statement.

UberPOP puts customers in touch with private drivers at budget prices. It has angered taxi drivers who say it represents unfair competition because the UberPOP drivers do not face the same regulations and pricing restrictions.

Protests turned violent last week, with cars set alight and reports of UberPOP passengers being attacked.

Around 3,000 cabbies took part in the strike, blocking access to the capital's Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports, and preventing cars reaching train stations around the country.

Ten people were arrested, seven police officers were injured and 70 vehicles were damaged in clashes between Uber drivers and taxi drivers.

UberPop, has been illegal in France since January, but the law has proved difficult to enforce and it continues to operate.

The law is currently being reviewed by the Constitutional Court.

Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said after meeting taxi drivers' unions following a fraught day: "UberPop is an illegal service, it must be closed down."

Until that was done, "the vehicles of UberPop drivers should be systematically impounded when they are openly breaking the law", the minister said.

"Governing the country will never be done by the law of the jungle," Mr Cazeneuve added.

Two Uber bosses were arrested this week and will go on trial in September, charged with "misleading commercial practices, complicity in the illegal exercise of the taxi profession and illegal use of private data", the Paris prosecutor said.

In the most serious incident in Paris, one private chauffeur, who said he did not work for Uber "or any other app" was dragged from his van when he reached a blockade in the west of Paris.

Angry taxi drivers slashed the tyres of his vehicle, smashed a window and then set it and a chauffeur-driven van on fire.

Police eventually fired teargas to break up the protest on the western stretch of the ring road around the capital and cleared burning tyres.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls said during a visit to Colombia that the perpetrators of the "unacceptable" violence "can be found in both camps" and they would be found and prosecuted.

Taxi drivers are furious at what they see as unfair competition from Uber, which puts customers in touch with private drivers at prices lower than those of traditional taxis.

Licensed cabbies say the service is endangering their jobs by flooding the market with low-cost drivers.

One driver said the strikers had been driven to desperation.

"Taxi drivers - alright, they've got big mouths - but normally they're not aggressive," said Malia, 50, who has driven a taxi for three years.

"But these guys have families to feed, debts. They've been pushed to the brink."

More peaceful protests took place at transport hubs in other major cities including Bordeaux, Marseille and Toulouse.

On at least two occasions in Strasbourg in eastern France the week before, taxi drivers posed as customers in order to lure Uber drivers to isolated spots where they were assaulted by cab drivers and their vehicles damaged.

In Paris, the government tried to strengthen its hand on Wednesday by obtaining a court order banning Uber from operating in the capital, but the company dismissed the move.

"We will fight it (in the courts) and we'll see what happens on appeal. For the time being it changes nothing, UberPOP can continue to operate," the head of Uber France, Thibaud Simphal, told the BFM Business channel.

San Francisco-based Uber, which offers several types of ride-sharing services, claims to have 400,000 UberPOP users in France.

However, its drivers do not pay taxes, do not need to undergo the 250 hours of training mandatory for French cabbies and do not require the same insurance as taxis.

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