A new international media investigation has revealed US taxi company Uber’s shady practices during its European expansion – a strategy in which French President Emmanuel Macron reportedly played a key role.
The so-called Uber Files shows how the company lobbied leading European politicians – including Mr Macron – to push for more lenient regulations, knowingly operated outside of the law, duped police services and tried to capitalise on violence against drivers for the company’s gain.
The reports are based on documents leaked by Mark MacGann, Uber’s former chief lobbyist, and were revealed by UK newspaper The Guardian as well as 42 other media partners, including French paper Le Monde.
Macron and Uber
When Uber launched in Paris in 2014 – the first city in the European market that it entered – Mr Macron was serving as the country’s minister for the economy and digital affairs.
The company’s arrival in France was immediately controversial. Paris’ licensed taxis had a monopoly back then and their operations were strictly regulated – drivers had to have 300 hours of training before getting their licences.
Uber, with its service called UberPop, changed that.
It essentially allowed anyone to become a taxi driver through its app service. It got away with this by classifying itself as a ride-sharing company, allowing it to avoid paying social security contributions and taxes, and leaving its drivers without the same labour rights as regulated taxi drivers.
The Uber Files shows how Mr Macron held a series of undisclosed meetings with the company’s CEO at the time, Travis Kalanick.
One leaked briefing detailing Uber’s first meeting with Mr Macron in October 2014 described it as “spectacular. Like I’ve never seen.”
This was the start of seemingly very friendly relations between Mr Macron and Mr Kalanick, who messaged him privately several times in addition to regular communication between Mr Macron’s aides and Uber executives.
A 2014 law in France, called the loi Thévenoud, sought to ban UberPop due to its questionable status as a ride-sharing company. Ride-sharing services should only require the customer to cover the costs of the journey, but should not allow the driver to make profits.
Despite the law, Uber continued operating its UberPop service in France while it challenged legal processes against it.
This led to protests by French taxi drivers, who complained about being put out of business by illegal drivers.
The protests worsened in 2016, with UberPop still operating. Leaked messages show how at this point, Mr Kalanick encouraged a counter protest by Uber drivers, despite being warned of the potential danger it could cause them.
“I think it's worth it, violence guarantees success,” he wrote to the company’s chief lobbyist, Mr MacGann.
In another instance in 2015, the préfet de police in Marseille at the time, Laurent Nuñez, issued a decree effectively banning Uber from parts of the Bouches-du-Rhône region.
Mr MacGann wrote to Mr Macron to demand a reason and Mr Macron wrote back saying he “would look into it personally”.
Three days later the decree was overturned, although Mr Nuñez, who is now a close advisor to Mr Macron, said he received no pressure from the current president to retract the decree.
The leaks also reveal how Mr Macron was involved in a secret political deal with Uber to help the company fight the loi Thévenoud by pushing for more favourable regulations.
In the end, Uber closed down its UberPop service in France in 2016, although it still operates its licenced Uber service, which operates as a véhicule de transport avec chauffeur company, meaning a private chauffeur company.
Under this classification, Uber can charge passengers in the same way as normal taxi companies but its cars cannot patrol the streets looking for passengers and have to wait to be called out.
Macron: I am not an ‘uberolâtre’
The Guardian said that Mr Macron “went to extraordinary lengths to support Uber’s lobbying campaign to help it disrupt France’s closed-shop taxi industry”.
It paints a picture of Mr Macron as a supporter of innovation and deregulation for the sake of progress.
Mr Macron has addressed his relationship with Uber previously.
In November 2016 he told Mediapart that he is not a supporter of the company, saying, “je ne suis pas un uberolâtre” – something akin to ‘I am not an Uberite”.
“I’m quite the contrary,” he said.
“I think that their final purpose is not to pay taxes and rather to have autonomous vehicles, not even to have badly paid drivers.”
He admitted that the drivers were badly paid, saying that they sometimes work 60 to 70 hours per week without making minimum wage, but concluded that it was better than them being unemployed.
“They return home with dignity, they find a job, they put on a suit and tie,” he said.
“However, the fact that their employer [Uber] doesn't pay taxes in France is a problem," he added.
Following these latest reports of Mr Macron’s close relations to Uber, the president’s office has stated:
“The action of the former minister of the economy was part of the classic framework of the functions of a minister who was naturally led to exchange with numerous companies engaged in the far-reaching transformation of services that occurred during the years mentioned, which had to be facilitated by removing certain administrative or regulatory locks.”
La question la plus importante, sur le sujet @UberFR, est de savoir si oui ou non son implantation en a été une bonne chose socialement et économiquement. Pour le reste, on peine à voir ce qui est répréhensible (intéressant, mm) dans l'article de @lemondefr sur @EmmanuelMacron— Cédric O (@cedric_o) July 10, 2022
In response to other accusations against Uber’s shady practices in other countries, Jill Hazelbaker, Uber’s senior vice-president of public affairs, issued a statement in The Guardian saying:
“We have not and will not make excuses for past behaviour that is clearly not in line with our present values. Instead, we ask the public to judge us by what we’ve done over the last five years and what we will do in the years to come.”
Uber’s impact in France was significant and has even left a lasting mark on the language. In 2017, French dictionary Larousse added the word “ubérisation”, meaning:
“Challenging the economic model of a company or a sector of activity by the arrival of a new player offering the same services at lower prices, carried out by self-employed people rather than employees, most often via Internet booking platforms.”