PARIS (Reuters) - France ordered a nationwide clampdown on UberPOP on Thursday, siding with taxi drivers who blockaded major transport hubs in angry protests against the popular online ride-sharing service.
Furious at what they regard as unfair competition, cabbies blocked roads to the capital’s airports, overturned cars and burned tires to press for the scheme to be abolished.
Prime Minister Manuel Valls condemned the violence and incidents “on both sides” as the government sought to take a tough stand on the protests while backing the drivers’ case.
“They give a deplorable image to visitors to our country,” he said during a visit to Colombia, adding that all available legal measures would be taken to halt the UberPOP activity.
Police said 70 cars were damaged and seven police officials injured in the protests. Ten people were arrested.
The protests were among the fiercest in a series of strikes and other demonstrations across Europe against San Francisco-based Uber, whose backers including investment bank Goldman Sachs (GS.N) and technology giant Google (GOOGL.O). It is valued in excess of $40 billion.
Uber, which says it has 1 million users in France, links drivers to passengers via a smartphone app. It has expanded its UberPOP service in French cities, provoking anger from taxi drivers and stirring a debate over what is fair competition.
At Paris Charles de Gaulle airport, staff advised passengers to avoid the traffic chaos by walking between terminals. Dozens of passengers lined the roads, with some scrambling up slopes and across motorway barriers, a Reuters witness said.
French TV showed images of burning tires blocking part of the Paris ring road and scuffles between cabbies and other drivers. Police in riot gear at one point intervened using tear gas.
Taxi drivers set up barriers around Marseilles and Aix-en-Provence in southeast France, including at motorway exits, and blocked access to train stations in the two cities.
“We are faced with permanent provocation (from Uber) to which there can only be one response: total firmness in the systematic seizure of offending vehicles,” G7 taxi firm head Serge Metz told BFM TV.
“SAFER IN BAGHDAD”?
Among travelers caught up in the chaos was U.S. rock singer Courtney Love, widow of late Nirvana lead singer Kurt Cobain, who wrote in a Tweet appeal to the French president that her car had come under siege by protesting taxi drivers.
“Is it legal for your people to attack visitors? Get your ass to the airport ... this is France?? I‘m safer in Baghdad.”
UberPOP links drivers of private cars with potential passengers at cheaper rates than conventional cabs and has already come under political and legal scrutiny in France.
In a toughening of the French stance, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve ordered Paris police to issue a decree banning UberPOP and said cars defying the order would be seized.
“The government will never accept the law of the jungle,” he said in a television declaration on Thursday evening.
He also ordered local police chiefs and prosecutors to clamp down on what he said was a failure by Uber to pay social and tax charges in France.
However, the government stopped short of implementing the main demand of the protesters: a block on the smartphone app without which the on-demand UberPOP service cannot operate. That, officials said, would need a decision by the courts.
Uber spokesman Thomas Meister accused Cazeneuve of over-riding the normal legal process. “The way things work in a state of law is that it’s for the justice to judge whether something is legal or illegal,” he said.
A law from October 2014 placed a ban on putting clients in touch with unregistered drivers. Uber has contested the rule, saying it is unclear and counter to the freedom to do business.
Meister said he expected the Constitutional Council to give its view on the law in the next three months, adding that Uber considered part of it to be unconstitutional.
(Story refiles to change `even’ to `seven’ in fifth paragraph.)
Additional reporting by Emmanuel Jarry, Jean-Francois Rosnoblet, Sophie Louet; Writing by James Regan, Tim Hepher; Editing by Mark John and Hugh Lawson