France’s Government-Backed Uber Replacement Should Thrill Uber

France's ailing taxi industry is supposed to benefit from a new government-funded mobile platform designed to help traditional cabs compete with ride-hailing service Uber.

France has a long history of economic protectionism, and for several years now, politicians here have tried to put the brakes on Uber's popularity through regulation, and now by bolstering private taxi services with taxpayer money. These efforts so far have largely failed. Early indications are that the state's new attempts to Uber-ize taxis will meet the same fate.

On Tuesday, France's transportation department officially launched Le.Taxi, a service designed to enable people to electronically hail traditional French cabs via the Internet, similar to how customers get rides from Uber. Le.Taxi uses geolocation technology to generate a nationwide database of the whereabouts of taxis, and lets people across the country select the nearest ride.

The thing is, any comparison to Uber's service is likely to be unflattering for Le.Taxi. First, Le.Taxi is not an app. The platform hosts apps, some that enable cab companies to participate in the service, and others are for consumers to download to their mobile phone.

Screenshot of the Le.Taxi website. Image: Le Taxi

Shopping for these on Le.Taxi's site is confusing. Then there is an annoying range of different offers and limitations. Some of the taxi services accept checks and American Express, and some don't. One company, TedyCab, determines the location of a phone customer and only responds to that spot, making it impossible for a third-party to hail a cab for a friend or family member who is in a different location.

The inconveniences don't stop there. Unlike Uber, most of the cab services don't offer an estimate of the fare in advance, and Le.Taxi's participating cab companies require a customer to pay the driver--just as it's always been done. If you don't have a credit card or you're out of cash, then you're out of luck.

In contrast, Uber's service in France automatically debits a customer's credit card. People who use Uber, which through a spokesman declined to comment for this story, can also book a ride in whatever country the service is available. Not Le.Taxi, which is limited to France. Without an internationally available app -- like Uber's -- how will tourists arriving in France, the world's most visited country, find Le.Taxi's cabbies?

"Tourists make up around 30 percent of our business," one cab driver told Motherboard, while waiting at a taxi stand Tuesday in Paris' Montmartre district.

A taxi line in Paris. Image: Greg Sandoval

Le.Taxi does offer some nifty bells and whistles, like letting a user see a driver's customer reviews, and the ability to pick and choose nearby drivers --something that Uber doesn't do. The one big advantage that France's government seems to be banking on though is the large number of traditional cabs available to sign up to Le.Taxi. Just in Paris, the country's capital, more than 40,000 cabs are buzzing around, though to this early stage only 3,000 have signed on to Le.Taxi. Meanwhile, Uber has 12,000 drivers in the city.

So Le.Taxi is going up against an established powerhouse without much of a reason for propsective riders to choose the service over Uber. What this lackluster product launch does accomplish, however, is showcase how difficult it is to duplicate Uber's service. It also illustrates how entrenched the San Francisco, CA.--based company has become in France.

"I have the [Uber] app now on my phone, so I wouldn't download another one."

Uber now has 1.5 million customers in France. On Tuesday evening at Gare du Nord, one of Paris' main train stations, the number of Uber pickups and dropoffs was startling to see, but so too were the people getting in and out of Uber cars. Seemingly all were young, which means Uber is establishing what could become long-term brand loyalty with an important demographic.

Judith Haussling, a 46-year-old project manager for a real estate company, has lived in Paris for 25 years and got around via traditional French taxis for 24 of those years. Last year, based on recommendations by friends, she signed up with Uber. She praised the kindness of Uber's drivers and cleanliness of the cars.

Asked whether she'd be willing to download an app from taxi companies, Haussling told Motherboard : "I might use them for an early morning trip to the airport because you can't schedule Uber like that, but I would only use Uber for daily use because I'm used to it, and I've had a good experience with them. I have the app now on my phone, so I wouldn't download another one."

At first glance, Uber's story in France seems to fit nicely into the kind of narrative that is old and much loved in tech circles: A legacy industry, confronted by a disruptive technology, responds by creating a copycat. And of course, they botch it.

A French taxi carries a banner in protest of Uber. Credit: Greg Sandoval.

Maybe France's government and top taxi services are just not tech savvy enough to compete against Uber. Some people aren't so sure.

Dozens of the men and women driving traditional French cabs who were waiting for fares at Gare du Nord pinned the blame on the state's conflicting interests.

France President Francois Hollande has promised to boost employment figures, and so far results are mixed. For his government, putting thousands of Uber drivers on the unemployment rolls probably isn't a priority. For that reason, some cab drivers accuse Hollande of turning a blind eye to what they say are Uber's "illegal practices."

According to them, Uber drivers don't have to pay the same fees or meet the same licensing requirements. The cabbies say they just want a level playing field.

"Fuck Uber. Uber drivers are unprofessional. They are not trained and are dangerous."

In recent years, some of these same drivers took part in demonstrations that sometimes turned violent. Last year, with cabbies in the streets blocking traffic and vandalizing suspected Uber cars, Hollande's government dramatically accused two of Uber's executives of deceptive business practices and arrested them. Eventually the executives and the company were fined; the equivalent of $950,000 for Uber and a total of $55,000 for the two executives. But the cab drivers note that for a company like Uber, valued at more than $60 billion by some estimates, the fines were less than a slap on the wrist.

"Fuck Uber," Eric Zafati, a 33-year old who has driven a cab in Paris for four years, said Tuesday outside Gare du Nord. "Uber drivers are unprofessional. They are not trained and are dangerous. I understand that they are cheaper and people use them to save money, but there are too many accidents. I see them all the time."

But in all the complaining about Uber, the cab drivers never mention the part they played in their own predicament. Ask any Parisian about their past experiences with cabs and you almost always get stories about dishonest detours, surly drivers and smelly cars. Don't forget it was an inability to find a cab in Paris that inspired founders Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp to create Uber in 2009.

Uber's rise in France has forced change on taxis, changes that benefit consumers. Taxis now offer flat-rate trips to and from the airport, offer water bottles and other perks to riders ala Uber, and are even said to be more pleasant.

Those are steps in the right direction but have they come too late? For customers like Judith Haussling, the answer is yes.

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