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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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ENERGY

EXPLAINED: Why are French energy prices capped?

As energy prices soar around Europe, France is the notable exception where most people have seen no significant rise in their gas or electricity bills - so what lies behind this policy? (Hint - it's not just that the French would riot if their bills exploded).

EXPLAINED: Why are French energy prices capped?

On most international comparisons of rising energy prices, France is the outlier – but the government control of energy prices is not in fact a new policy and was in place well before the Russian invasion of Ukraine sent gas and electricity prices soaring.

At present prices for domestic gas are frozen at 2021 levels and electricity prices can only increase four percent per year. According to economy minister Bruno Le Maire, without these measures French bills would have risen by 60 percent for gas and 45 percent for electricity.

Both these measures – collectively known as the bouclier tarifaire (tariff shield) – are in place until at least the end of 2022, and could be extended into 2023.

The extension of the price shield was confirmed by parliament earlier in August – part of a €65 billion package of measures aimed at tackling the cost-of-living crisis – but had been in place for much longer.

Tariff shield

The reason that gas prices are frozen at 2021 levels is that the freeze came into effect on November 1st 2021 – well before Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

The measure was initially put in place to help people deal with the economic after-effects of the pandemic, but was extended in the spring of 2022, when electricity prices were also capped at four percent.

Price regulation

But although prolonged price freezes are unusual, the French government involvement in price-setting is completely normal and during non-freeze periods, a rate is set each month.

If you read French media (or The Local), you’ll notice regular articles on ‘what changes next month’ which include gas and electricity prices, usually expressed as a month-on-month percentage rise or fall. This refers to the maximum rate that utility companies are allowed to increase their charges per month.

The government-set rate refers to the basic price plan from EDF. Some people are on special deals or time-limited tariffs, so if their deal or payment plan ends and they go back onto the basic rate, they can see a rise above the government rate.

Around 85 percent of households in France get their electricity from EDF. 

READ MORE: Reader Question: Why did my French electricity bill increase by more than 4%

State-owned utilities

So, why is the government involved? Well, it’s the majority stakeholder in EDF, the country’s largest electricity supplier, and owns Gaz de France (Engie). 

At present EDF isn’t completely state owned – although there are plans to fully nationalise it – but it owns 84 percent.

The French state owns a lot of service and utility companies including the country’s rail provider SNCF, postal service La Poste and France Télévisions. One notable exception is the country’s autoroutes, which are run by private companies, although the government sets limits on toll charges. 

Nuclear 

France is less exposed to energy shocks than some other European countries because of its nuclear sector.

It is unusual among European nations in the size of its nuclear industry – around 70 percent of electricity comes from its own domestic nuclear power plants, although during the heatwave several plants have had to lower output as rivers have become too hot to effectively cool the reactors. There are also ongoing technical issues that have seen some of the older plants shut down or forced to lower output.

READ ALSO Why is France so obsessed with nuclear?

France is usually a net exporter of electricity, but at peak times it has to import electricity, usually via the high-priced international spot market.

It does, however, import its gas, mostly via pipeline – in 2020 its biggest supplier was Norway, followed by Russia.

The French government has launched a sobriété energetique (energy sobriety) plan to cut its total energy consumption by 10 percent this year, which it hopes will allow it to get through the winter without Russian gas. 

Riots

Even before the recent €65 billion aid package, the French government was taking a pro-active role in helping people deal with rising prices – from the price shield to fuel rebates for drivers, €100 grants for low-income households and financial aid for industries such as agriculture and logistics so they could avoid passing prices on the consumers.

Cynics say this happened for two reasons – because there were elections in April and June and because the French would riot if their utility bills suddenly doubled.

There’s a kernel of truth in both – cost of living became a major issue in the April presidential elections and one that far-right leader Marine Le Pen very much made her own from early in the campaign, leaving Emmanuel Macron slightly on the back foot, although in truth his government had already introduced several measures to ease the burden on ordinary voters.

It’s also true that the French have a robust approach to holding their government to account, and high living costs have previously inspired noisy and sometime violent protests – the ‘yellow vest’ movement of 2018 and 19 began as a protest over living costs.

But it’s also true that the French State is generally quite involved in people’s everyday lives – as evidenced by those monthly gas and electricity price rates – and taking a laissez-faire approach such as that seen in the UK would be unusual for any French government, even outside of election season.

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