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The Paris taxi smackdown

Paris' taxi driver union protests encroachment by motorcycle taxis on their business.

Taxi drivers were protesting a government proposal to attribute free livery licenses to businesses even though it can take up to 17 years for an individual to acquire one; the withdrawal of a permit from any driver who accumulates six violation points at once; and a measure to allow shuttle buses and motorcycles to load passengers from airport taxi stands.

The strike resulted in a meeting with the prefect of police that allowed the drivers to air their grievances ahead of any new provisions being adopted. “It was what we hoped for,” said Hassan Mounir, the treasurer of the striking union who was briefed about the meeting since he could not attend. “Our protest bore fruit; they listened to us.”

New guidelines stipulate that companies won’t receive free licenses. Instead they will be allocated in 2010 to 223 drivers on a waiting list, the union announced in a release following the protest. In addition, only drivers who repeatedly flout road rules will face the possibility of losing their driving permit. And motorcycle and shuttle drivers now risk a hefty 15,000 euro ($21,000) fine and six months in prison for solicitation.

“They’re supposed to have a reservation to pickup clients but unfortunately they come to solicit,” Mounir said, of the offending motorcycles. Taxi drivers typically have to idle at the airport for at least two hours if they want to pick up a return fare into the city, said Mounir, who has driven a cab for the last six years. “We don’t have the right to solicit; we can be sanctioned and lose 10 days of work.”

Franky Lirus, who has been in the motorcycle business since 2002 and now works for himself, said a few bad apples are not representative of the bunch. Furthermore, he said, the same car drivers who are protesting against the motorcycles don’t really want the sector to be regulated since that would legitimize the competition.

The Ministry of the Interior regulates the taxi sector while the motorcycle drivers say they mostly police themselves, mounting efforts like equipping their vehicles for bio-ethanol fuel and even joining forces to set up a counter inside Paris' Orly airport for clients to make reservations. “Even without a law, we exist,” said Lirus.

Mounir said about 16,000 four-wheel taxis operate in Paris. Motorcycle drivers said their ranks were only about 300 deep, “a drop of water” in comparison, said D’Andrea. And since the two kinds of businesses attract different clientele, what’s the problem with free enterprise?

“We offer a service that they cannot,” said Lirus, 41. “We can’t steal their clients.”

David Pires, 54, drove a cab for 20 years but four years ago he sold his license, which can cost upwards of 180,000 euros ($257,000), in order to drive a motorcycle. He didn’t like being stuck in traffic all the time and now says a pick up from the airport into Paris that might have taken him over an hour during rush hour in a car now takes half the time in a motorcycle, and he makes the same or even a little more money.

“If there are strikes, motorcycle taxis work a lot,” Pires said.