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After Violent Clashes With Taxis, Here's What It Was Like to Take an UberPop in France Today

They're attacking singer Courtney Love, which any U.S. citizen knows is not a very good idea.

Shervin Pishevar

A whole lot of traffic. Blocked airports, train stations and hotels. Some amount of egging. Fistfights and beatings. An overturned, dramatically on-fire car. And, most of all, a lot of people screaming at each other on the roads and on the television.

Let it be said: I am really enjoying my time in France.

Okay, not so much, due to “Colère et Violence” — anger and violence, as was trumpeted noisily on France’s news programs today — after the enthusiastic use of Uber by consumers boiled over into full rage by taxi drivers in this European country that seems to both love and hate the San Francisco high-profile ride-hailing service.

Shervin Pishevar

Close to 3,000 taxi drivers across the country are protesting Uber’s UberPop service — which is the equivalent of its UberX offering in the U.S., manned by non-professional and non-licensed drivers. While it has been banned by the government here and in other countries, the service is still available on the app until it is ordered by courts not to be. But it’s still seeing brisk business despite fines, which are being paid by Uber.

The reason is basic: UberPop prices are dramatically lower than those charged by taxis.

If you think the growth of Uber can be controversial in the U.S., it takes on a whole new meaning in France, which conducts its protests very seriously, even to the point of sometimes disturbing violence. While there was a definite level of ire directed at Uber in the U.S., the protests here are decidedly more visceral.

I mean, they are attacking singer Courtney Love, which any U.S. citizen knows is not a very good idea. Love managed to escape her UberPop attack on a motorcycle, tweeting “I’m safer in Baghdad.” (Um, no, but you get the point.)

No such drama for me — in fact, none at all, despite taking several rides via UberPop in the last two days. My driver today, for example, seemed nonplussed about the protests as he took me to Nice’s airport to escape early, noting only that the taxi industry was a “monopole” (monopoly) and had the government in its pocket.

Using Google Translate to interview him — he spoke very little English and I know some very bad high school French (Où est le stylo de ma tante?) — the neatly dressed young man said UberPop was his second job and he was doing it to supplement his income from delivering packages.

Was he scared of getting beat up? “Non.”

Would he stop driving for Uber because of the protest? “Non.”

Was Uber going to prevail here? “J’espère.” He hopes.

I’m in France to attend the Cannes Lions event, where the world’s advertisers meet annually to party, drink gallons of rosé and presumably do business in the picturesque Côte d’Azur town. It’s become an especially big deal for the digital advertising industry as a must-attend, attracting top execs from Silicon Valley who come to show off their wares.

But now instead of trying to grok why the new Snapchat ad service announced here is called Truffle Pig or mulling whether I should go to the Google or Vice party (which are basically exactly the same, with hipster dudes and more rosé) tonight or agreeing to, and then not attending, the umpteenth panel about the impact of BuzzFeed on publishing or wondering why outgoing Twitter CEO Dick Costolo is schmoozing it up here, I, like many others, am formulating elaborate travel strategies to evade getting beaned by someone yelling at me in French.

At one traffic circle in Cannes, for example, the taxis had blocked the way and drivers were handing out pamphlets that read “UberStop.” Get it? Still other taxis blocked anyone from driving up to the front of the Majestic Hotel on the famous Croisette, irritating to the attendees, though ultimately more annoying than meaningful.

While there have been some more dramatic scenes — such as that flaming car in Porte Maillot, one of the key intersections into Paris — this is mostly what it’s been: One big, gnarly French traffic jam.

Shervin Pishevar

It could be worse tomorrow, since that’s when many here are headed out to somewhere — Greece, Brussels, London, back to San Francisco. Which is why everyone is trying to come up with a plan of escape, from getting close to the airport and then walking, to taking a helicopter (Uber is offering that too at about $150 for a short ride), to just waiting it out. It’s not clear if the protest will last another day — one Facebook exec was told by its security team that it will go on for many more days — or just end with today’s rampage.

And however sympathetic you might be to the issues raised by the taxi drivers, the fact that the service works well and the taxi drivers went violent so quickly is impacting opinions. In a quick poll of French citizens I encountered while dragging my bag to the airport hotel I am holed up at, most said they liked Uber and did not understand all the fuss.

“They’re cheaper,” said one person, a common refrain. Which is precisely the issue for taxi drivers, although not for consumers of those drives. Will that tension be resolved soon?

Probably not, but j’espère.

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