Why the Uber attack in France is just the beginning

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This Monday, during a strike day organized by the French taxi drivers to protest the “unfair competition” they say Uber and its ilk represent (in French, "véhicules de tourisme avec chauffeur," or VTCs), a dozen Uber cars have been attacked in Paris & Lyon, Uber confirmed to French blog RudeBaguette, including “flat tires, eggs, and broken windows."

The story was quickly picked up by French and international media following the tweets of two passangers who were in one of the cars.

Although there’s no proof that those assailants were taxi drivers, this is the most popular (or only?) opinion. Renaud Visage, Eventbrite’s CTO, who was with Kat Borlongan during the attack, upholds it, explaining that he saw the assailants leaving their taxis.

Taxis and Uber’s clients quickly reacted. The violence of those attacks added to a growing discontent fueled by a shortage of taxis, monopoly abuse, and bad service (yes, Parisian taxi drivers can be as rude as their reputation), which has now lead many to boycott taxis. That wasn't really the original plan, was it?

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Uber is no stranger to making headlines, though. Not a week goes by without an article about its crazy revenue, its surge pricing, its founder's fighting spirit, or its battles with taxi companies. All of the countries where Uber launched are facing the same challenge: taxi unions are turning to their government to block the new competitors.

The French might have a taste for the dramatic and a flair for gaining media attention, but the reality is that this incident could have happened anywhere; not only has it been happening to Uber since its inception, but it's symbolic of broader changes across transportation markets. 

It's easy to say why there's a global need. Having grown up in Paris, where I now live, I've had my share of bad experiences in taxis. Once, it took me two hours to find a taxi at night, and countless others, I've been shocked by either the fare or the driver's behavior. So I’m glad Uber and its local clones are turning the taxi industry upside down.

For many French, opting for a VTC is the best way to get a car quickly, to know the fare in advance, and have someone nice in front of you. But more than that, opting for a VTC is a way to say no the taxi monopoly, and to reclaim control in a situation that has historically been out of their hands, by making the ‘taxi mafia’ pay.

And, as is often the case, it’s only a minority of a community – in our case, violent, protesting, or simply rude drivers – who give a bad image to the majority of the community that don’t deserve it. "Sir, speaking for the vast majority of taxi drivers not on strike, I'd like to apologize for those unacceptable behaviors," @renaudvisage tweeted that same day.

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At the moment, this silent majority is letting the violent drivers drive the conversation. The more they fight to maintain a monopoly, the less Parisians will want to do with them.  

Yet they are succeeding. To calm down the taxi lobby, and against the Competition Authority’s recommendations, the French government passed a law ordering VTC to wait at least 15 minutes between the time a ride is ordered and client pick-up. Encouraged by the decision, taxi drivers are now asking for a 30 minute delay and a €60 (US $80) minimum fare, Le Monde reports.

This, of course, could dampen progress, hurting French VTCs who don’t have the means to compete in this situation, leaving the market open only to an international VC that has raised huge amounts of funding, i.e. Uber.

These policies also send a strong negative message to other industries facing new disruptive competition: they won't have to improve because the government will protect them.

Yet this trend is global: governments that prioritize appeasement over progress will find themselves in a similar bind. Protection will work, until Parisians, moving away from owning cars, demand that better VTC and taxi services be offered. The same goes for riders everywhere.

In the Middle East, this simply isn't an issue, for now. The few markets that Uber and its rival, Careem have entered- the UAE, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia- already have rules in place for the limosuine companies that these companies partner with, and a broader societal precedent of hiring taxi drivers who consititute a temporary workforce; a protest would be unheard of.

Yet elsewhere, the rules for protection may become increasingly complex. It could get worse before it gets better. In Seoul, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick explained At LeWeb, Uber is legal as long as the passenger is not Korean. It's a compromise of sorts, but can it last?

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