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JOHN LICHFIELD

OPINION: Macron helped Uber disrupt rip-off Paris taxi business. Is that a scandal?

The global investigation into taxi firm Uber has revealed that Emmanuel Macron was a key ally of the company in France - but was that really so wrong, asks John Lichfield? Or did Macron play a part in providing a reasonable service for taxi passengers in Paris (while pursuing his stated goal of opening up the French economy)?

OPINION: Macron helped Uber disrupt rip-off Paris taxi business. Is that a scandal?
Paris taxi drivers protest against the arrival of Uber in 2016. Photo by Eric Feferberg / AFP

Oh what a lovely scandal, just the kind the French media and the French Left adore.

It involves “les lobbies” (a French word meaning the rich, powerful and usually the foreign). It involves an alleged conspiracy to tunnel through the Alpine massif of French employment law. It is satisfyingly complex and so lends itself to far-fetched allegations and theories.

Above all, it involves President Emmanuel Macron before he was President.

I must say that I struggle to see why it is a big scandal. But lots of documents and detail have yet to be explored. Maybe, I will be proved wrong.

It involves Uber, the online taxi service which has taken many of the world’s cities by storm in the last decade. A treasure trove of 240,000 internal Uber documents has been leaked to an investigative consortium of the international media, starting with The Guardian in Britain but also including Le Monde in France.

The documents tell the story of a vast lobbying effort, and alleged dirty tricks, deployed by Uber from its Californian base to overturn or undermine the rules governing taxis in the United States and many other nations.

In France, it turns out, Uber had an ally on the inside, a mole or adviser within government, the then-economy minister, Emmanuel Macron. He went out of his way to help Uber to challenge and weaken opposition from French established taxi interests, trades unions and President François Hollande’s Socialist government in the period 2014-6.

Wicked? Not really. Macron more or less announced what he was doing at the time.

He was NOT taking back-handers (or at least no one has remotely accused him of doing so). He was pursuing his belief that France has been enfeebled by vested interests, restraint on trade and over-zealous employment law.

He saw Uber as a model for a more enterprising, less state-controlled economy – and a new source of jobs for the crime-and-unemployment-ridden, multi-racial, inner suburbs or banlieues.

 “If you oppose this then what do you want?” he said in 2016. “That they should go back to dealing drugs?”

Two years earlier, when questioned on his support for Uber, he said: “My job is not to help established companies but to work for the outsiders, the innovators.”

Some of Uber’s tactics were over the top. Some of what Macron did may also seem excessive. He was an insufferably cocksure young minister at that time (I met him briefly.) Amongst other things, he secretly helped to draft amendments, on behalf of Uber, to soften a law promoted by his own government.

But the outcome was (in my view) a reasonable balance between Uber’s more far-fetched proposals (a chaotic lift-sharing business called UberPop) and a reasonably regulated, new online taxi-hailing operation.

The French Left talks of a “state scandal” and plans to launch a parliamentary commission of inquiry. The Far Right accuses Macron of “Uberising” France (ie weakening job protections) in the interests of wealthy foreigners.

No one has much asked the obvious question. Is Uber a “good thing”?

Much of the coverage so far speaks of Uber as if was self-evidently a deplorable phenomenon. Have the authors of those articles ever used Ubers, as I frequently do whenever I’m in Paris, London or any other large city?

Pre-Uber, Paris taxis and taxi-drivers were a government-protected disgrace: unhelpful, rude, expensive and hard to find. One of the great achievements of Uber has been to oblige Paris taxis treat their passengers reasonably.

It should also be remembered that Macron’s support for Uber was part of a market-opening philosophy which also led to the creation of an-inter-city coach service in France (les cars Macron) and a successful French long-distance, lift-sharing app, BlaBlaCar.

It is also pre-figured a reform of employment law applied, unevenly, during his first term in the Elysée Palace. Some say Macron went too far; others that he promised more than he delivered.

 The fact is that (for several reasons, including the changes in unemployment law) France now has its lowest jobless total for 14 years and its lowest youth unemployment for 40 years. Two thirds of the new jobs created are not “Uber jobs” or short-term contracts but full-rights, permanent CDI jobs (Contrats de travail à durée indeterminé).

France under Macron has also become the top destination in Europe for foreign investment. Coincidentally – although no one much made the connection – it was announced that France would receive an extra €6.7 billion in foreign business investment this year, creating 4,000 new jobs. This is additional to the €4 billion promised early this year.

The great Uber scandal will doubtless run for a while. It may or may not be extinguished by the summer holidays. Who knows what is lurking in the hundreds of thousands of leaked Uber documents as yet unstudied?

Placed in context, what we know so far is pretty innocuous for Macron. Those who detest him will find new reasons to do so. Those who tolerate, or approve of, him will shrug and turn their eyes to other more pressing crises.

Member comments

  1. Thank you John Litchfield for this eminently reasonable analysis of a “scandal” that, so far, is hardly scandalous at all. Given Macron’s background and publicly-stated goals, and the previously dire scene of the taxi business in Paris, we would perhaps be more shocked if he had not done his best to help Uber. Just for context, a real scandal would be–let me, as an American, stretch my imagination–a real scandal would be if Macron had phoned the president of a former soviet-bloc nation and threatened, him, as a gangster would, to withhold financial support to motivate that president to “dig up” evidence of malfeasance committed by a close relative of Marine Le Pen. A crazy unimaginable idea for any world leader! But that would be a scandal worth worrying about.

  2. Hollande, typically, bent to pressure from the newspapers and vested interests and passed a law that supposedly stopped Uber but actually did nothing of the sort. In my town (Nice) the taxis are notorious for their ripoffs notably, of course, of tourists coming in from the airport. They are also, seemingly, a monopoly dominate by pieds noirs. You won’t see a black or N African cabbie. We have the ‘shield’ system whereby there are a limited number of licences and a taxi licence is held by an individual who can then pass it on to someone else when he retires. The going rate for a licence a few years ago was, according to the local paper, 300k €. You don’t have to be a genius to see exactly what kind of abuses that would encourage.

    I reckon these revelations will work in Macron’s favour.

    When Uber started up in Nice in May 2015 the cabbies blockaded the airport, setting fire to heaps of tires in the middle of the road and threatening violence to anyone trying to go past. I had to get to the airport to meet a friend, the buses were stopping a mile or so short of the airport. I was stopped from walking along the pavement by the police, who were (natch) doing nothing about the taxi drivers, I asked why but had no coherent reply, although I suspect it was only my strong English accent that stopped me getting sprayed. When la flic moved to the toher side of the pavement to stop someone else I carried on to the airport through scenes of absolute mayhem.

    The Nice mairie has now extended the trams system to the airport so you don’t have to take taxis any longer unless you’re snobbish.

  3. Good and fair summary. I use both Uber and G7 taxis, it gives me choice. I read both the Guardian and Le Monde; I find their investigative journalism effective but sometimes over zealous and holier than thou. But obviously worth attention

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POLITICS

Macron calls for stricter Twitter controls on Covid disinformation

French President Emmanuel Macron criticised Twitter's new boss Elon Musk on Thursday, saying the entrepreneur was wrong to drop the fight against Covid disinformation as he slashes back content moderation on the platform.

Macron calls for stricter Twitter controls on Covid disinformation

With his country facing a fresh surge in coronavirus infections, Macron said the subject of misleading Covid information should be addressed head on, not swept under the rug.

“I think this is a big issue,” Macron, on a state visit to the United States, told broadcaster ABC. “What I push very much, for one, is exactly the opposite: more regulation.”

He said such protections have been implemented and enforced in France and “at the European level.”

Freedom of expression remains paramount, Macron insisted, “but there is responsibilities and limits” to what can be written and disseminated.

“You cannot go into the streets and have a racist speech or anti-Semitic speech,” the French leader said. “You cannot put at risk the life of somebody else. Violence is never legitimate in democracy.”

Macron’s concept of freedom of expression within acceptable limits is far from the libertarian approach of Musk, a self-described “free speech absolutist” who has sacked many of the Twitter employees tasked with content moderation.

Musk has begun to allow Twitter users banned from the platform for posting disinformation, such as former US president Donald Trump, to return.

And it emerged this week that Twitter has stopped enforcing a rule preventing users from sharing misleading information about Covid-19 and vaccine effectiveness.

The billionaire Musk has made no secret of his fierce opposition to health restrictions put in place to fight the pandemic, especially when they meant the temporary shuttering of his Tesla electric vehicle factory in California.

“To say that they can not leave their house and they will be arrested if they do… this is fascist. This is not democratic, this is not freedom,” Musk raged in April 2020 on a conference call with analysts.

On Wednesday the European Union issued a sharp warning to Musk, saying he must do “significantly” more to fight disinformation, such as reinforcement of content moderation, in order to comply with EU law.

“There is still huge work ahead” for Twitter, said Thierry Breton, the EU commissioner for the internal market.

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