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.