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|French Taxi drivers burn tyres as they protest in the southern city of Marseille, demonstrating against UberPOP, a popular taxi app that is facing fierce opposition from traditional cabs. (AFP PHOTO/ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT)|
PARIS: Protests against ride-booking app Uber turned violent on Thursday (Jun 25) in France as cabbies torched cars, blocked roads and attacked a vehicle carrying American rocker Courtney Love.
Among the some 2,800 cabbies who took part in the strike, police arrested at least 11 across the country in connection with confrontations that erupted as the drivers blocked access to airports, train stations and major roads.
In a tweet Love wrote that protesters "ambushed" her vehicle and "were holding our driver hostage". Kurt Cobain's widow appealed to the French president in another message, writing "Francois Hollande where are the ...(expletives) police???""This is France?? I'm safer in Baghdad," she added.
Taxi drivers in France are furious over an Uber service called UberPOP, which puts customers in touch with private drivers at prices lower than those of traditional taxis. Licensed cabbies say the service is endangering their jobs by flooding the market with low-cost drivers.
UberPOP has been illegal in France since January, but the law has proved difficult to enforce and the service continues to operate.
One private chauffeur, who said he did not work for Uber "or any other app" was dragged from his van by angry cabbies when he reached a blockade in the west of Paris. They slashed his tyres, smashed a window and then set it and another van on fire.
Another driver said the strikers had been driven to desperation. "Taxi drivers - alright, they've got big mouths - but normally they're not aggressive," said Malia, 50, who has been a taxi driver for three years. "But these guys have families to feed, debts. They've been pushed to the brink."
Police eventually fired teargas and broke up the protest on the western stretch of motorway, clearing burning tyres from the road that rings the capital, but there were later attempts to stall traffic.
Officers arrested at least eight cabbies in Paris and near its airports in connection with the violence. Another three drivers were taken into custody in the southeastern city of Lyon.
"UberPOP is illegal. It's the law and it must be respected. We get the feeling the government is letting this happen," said Rene Pierre-Jean, a member of the CGT union manning a barricade outside the Gare du Nord station in Paris.
Interior Minister Bernard Cazenueve called on "all those who are involved in the protests to not engage in any violence," and said he had told prosecutors to bring a prohibition order against the UberPOP service.
ILLEGAL IN FRANCE
Peaceful protests played out at transport hubs in other major cities including Toulouse and Marseille. But traffic was backed up on roads around the country and travellers missed flights at major airports like Charles de Gaulle in Paris due to the protests.
Cabbies argued that the disruption was justified. "UberPOP is banned, but it's still here," cabbie Stephane Molla said in the southwestern city of Bordeaux. "We have to go through the whole routine: the licence, the rates we don't set, bans on flat-rate plans," added another driver, Fabrice Moreau.
Fearing that its professional drivers will be mistaken for UberPOP drivers, the private-hire cab firm Allocab told its workers Wednesday to have passengers ride in the front seat.
Cabbies in France, like their colleagues in several other countries, have held several protests against the app - some of which have turned violent.
On at least two occasions in Strasbourg in the east of France last week, taxi drivers posed as customers in order to lure Uber drivers to isolated spots where they were assaulted by cab drivers and their vehicles damaged.
US-based Uber, which offers several types of ride-sharing services, claims to have 400,000 UberPOP users in France. However, the drivers do not pay taxes, do not undergo the 250 hours of training that is mandatory for cabbies and do not carry the same insurance as taxis.
Since UberPOP was banned in France, its drivers risk up to a year in prison and a 15,000-euro (US$16,800) fine.