Screen grab from a video filmed by our Observer, showing taxi drivers brutally confronting an UberPop driver in Marseille on June 8. 

Some of Marseille’s taxi drivers took the law into their own hands on Monday, stopping drivers who they thought might have joined ranks with their most feared competitor, Uber. The American company offers a controversial app allowing customers to reserve a cheap ride with its fleet of drivers, who do not have chauffeur or taxi licenses. Numerous videos show these acts of mob justice happening in the streets of France’s second city.

The judicial situation in France concerning Uber’s unlicensed chauffeur service – dubbed UberPop in France – remains quite complicated. On January 1, the French government banned UberPop; Uber contested the decision and the court case is ongoing. However, Uber has continued to launch its services in French cities and are technically working illegally. France’s Uber drivers could be arrested and face fines of €15,000. They could also lose their driver's licenses for five years.

But it's not just the authorities who are annoyed at Uber. Each time it lauches in a new French town, Uber also has to face the wrath of local taxi drivers. UberPop launched Monday in Strasbourg, Nantes and Marseille to the dismay of “traditional” taxi drivers, who are worried over lost earnings when competing with the cheaper service, which is operated by drivers who don’t pay expensive licensing fees. The taxi drivers are lobbying for UberPop to be banned.

However, it is in Marseille that the tension is most palpable. Taxi drivers positioned their vehicles in strategic locations throughout the southern city – including in front of the main police station, where they called on the police chief to crack down on UberPop.

An informational and recruitment meeting being held by Uber at a hotel had to be cancelled when dozens of taxi drivers blocked the entrance and barred potential candidates from entering. Taxi drivers also decided to confront Uber’s first Marseille-based chauffers.

“We decided to set a trap for them by reserving Ubers”

“We weren’t able to find the bosses of Uber France in the hotel, so we decided to stop the Uber cars ourselves. Some of us signed up on the UberPop app and reserved a car. Then, we waited at the designated meeting place to catch them and turn them in to the police,” Marseille taxi driver Nicolas Varennes told FRANCE 24. Varennes published several videos filmed during the day on his Facebook page.

Varennes said that their interventions occurred “without violence or blows”. However, this video — filmed by a driver — did show thuggish behaviour and forceful methods being used. The protesting taxi drivers surrounded a vehicle to force it to stop, then punctured the tires. A few men climbed in with the driver to force him to drive towards the taxi drivers’ protest. There, the Uber driver was dragged out of the car and an egg was cracked on his head.

Several other Uber drivers were also stopped in a similar manner by the protesting taxi drivers. Their rough methods shocked our Observer, who filmed the “trap” set for another Uber driver near the main police station.

“It was like I was watching the mafia!”

Rémy is a law student in Marseille.

I was in a bus that should have gone along Rue Paradis, which goes in front of the main police station, but it was completely blocked by the taxis. So I decided to get out and walk instead. That’s when I saw a group of taxi drivers clustering around a white car. I realised that the taxi drivers had reserved Ubers just to trap the drivers. So I took out my phone to film what was happening.

It was an extremely tense situation. The drivers started to shake the car. Then they grabbed the driver, forcing him to turn off the engine.

At that point, one of the taxi drivers noticed that the Uber driver was wearing an electronic tracking device on his ankle (Editor’s note: These anklets are used for people on parole from prison). The drivers picked up his leg to show off the device. They made him get out of the car and even tried to rip the keys from his hands.

“I was shocked to see that the police didn’t intervene”

I knew that UberPop was launching yesterday morning, so I suspected that Marseille’s taxi drivers were going to protest.

But honestly, I didn’t expect anything so violent. It was like the law of the jungle, or the mafia! I was also really surprised to see that the police didn’t intervene, even though there was a massive police presence around the police station.

Uber drivers are citizens like anyone else; you can’t treat them that way. All the more so because I don’t think that Marseille’s taxis are shining examples of good service: one day, a taxi driver refused to take my friend to the hospital after he cut his finger. Another time, a driver refused to take me because he said that I wasn’t going far enough.

Marseille’s taxi drivers won a first small victory on Tuesday: the local authorities issued an order for police to run more checks looking for UberPop vehicles on public roads and ticket them.

Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Corentin Bainier (@cbainier).