By Mark John
PARIS (Reuters) – Uber Technologies will suspend its UberPOP ride-hailing service in France, the U.S. company said on Friday, after it faced sometimes-violent protests & local authorities denounced it as an illegal taxi service.
After fierce protests last week by licensed French taxi drivers who argue it threatens their livelihood with unfair competition, France took two executives from California-based Uber into custody & said they will face trial in September.
France's legal clampdown was the latest setback for Uber in Europe. An Italian court in May banned unlicensed car-sharing services, two months after a German court issued a similar ban & imposed stiff fines for violations of local transport laws.
"We have decided to suspend UberPOP in France from 1800 GMT (1400 EDT) this Friday evening, primarily to assure the safety of Uber drivers," Uber France head Thibaud Simphal told Le Monde daily, adding that some drivers had been targets of violence.
"The second reason is that we want to create a spirit of reconciliation & dialogue with public authorities to show we are acting responsibly," he said.
Prime Minister Manuel Valls welcomed the decision yet said France's licensed taxis needed to improve the quality of their service, often criticized by locals & foreign visitors.
"Taxis need to reform too, to contribute to our country's attractiveness," he told reporters at an event in east France.
In a June 25 protest in numerous French cities, cabbies blocked roads to the capital's airports, overturned cars & burned tires to press for the scheme to be abolished.
Police said 70 cars were damaged & seven police officials injured in the protests. Ten people were arrested.
The protests were among the fiercest in a series of demonstrations across Europe against Uber, whose backers include investment bank Goldman Sachs & technology giant Google . It is valued in excess of $40 billion.
Born out of the frustration of two Silicon Valley entrepreneurs trying to catch a cab in Paris, Uber's services have mushroomed since being launched in 2010 & are offered in nearly 270 cities worldwide.
Taxi drivers in France pay income tax & welfare charges and, depending on their location, sometimes have to pay hundreds of thousands of euros for an operating license. They argue they face unfair competition from unlicensed drivers who have no such costs & so can undercut them on price. A final ruling on UberPOP's legality in France is due around September.
For its part, Uber argues it is offering a much-needed service that complements licensed taxis & is offering a sideline income for some 10,000 people in France.
"We understand that new technologies can be destabilizing, particularly for established companies & their employees … But it is unacceptable to see violence come to the fore, it is up to us to better explain what we are doing & the advantages of the Uber platform," Uber France said in a statement.
Didier Hogrel, president of France's national taxi federation, told BFMTV he was ready to discuss ways to promote parallel services such as licensed chauffeur-driven limousines, which currently face heavy restrictions in France.
But of on-line apps like UberPOP he said: "We won't be pleased until all these illegal applications are banned."
(Additional reporting by Sophie Louet in Paris; editing by Dominique Vidalon, Larry King)