Paris may be one of the world’s most magical cities, but its taxi drivers have done little to enhance the romantic appeal. Over the years they have become renowned for their irascibility, their circuitous routes and their costly charges. Some refuse to take credit cards, then, when you hand over cash mysteriously have no change for your ten euro note.
They are also unusually ready, even by French standards, to rush to the barricades for strike action. In fairness, they earn far less than their counterparts in London and can pay huge sums for a licence. But typical of their actions was when the ride-sharing insurgent Uber turned up on the scene: furious taxi drivers blocked roads, smashed their rival’s windscreens and rampaged through the city throwing eggs at tourists. American singer Courtney Love was so angry she swore at the president on social media, asking: “Is it legal for your people to attack visitors?” Fair question.
Yet, these cabbies, infamous for surliness, are suddenly smartening up their act. G7, the biggest firm that operates almost half the capital’s 20,000 taxis, has painted vehicles black and imposed fixed fares on airport routes. Its drivers are donning suits and some are even attending classes to learn about decent service. And customers are being asked to rate their politeness and polished performance.
So what caused this French revolution? It was, of course, the challenge presented by a disruptive newcomer to a complacent sector. Even Nicolas Rousselet, the G7’s chief executive, admits the arrival of Uber was “a good thing” for service quality. “Drivers treated customers as they saw fit,” he told the Telegraph. “This unsatisfactory situation gave rise to competitors. If you don’t satisfy your customers, someone else will.”
This simple message is worth drumming home at a time when capitalism seems under constant attack from the Left, while being forsaken by many former friends on the Right. For once again, this time with the taxi trade of Paris, we see the beauty of competition to the benefit of citizens. Uber had to struggle against vested interests in the French capital, just as in London and elsewhere. In Brussels, one Uber driver once asked me to sit in the front seat to ensure he was not detected and attacked by a licensed rival. Yet his firm’s arrival leads to better services and cheaper prices.
Here is Adam Smith’s invisible hand with economic and social progress driven by parties pursuing their own interests – and few firms act as remorselessly in their own interests as Uber. It seems astonishing we have to keep restating the positive power of capitalism, not least when it is largely responsible for an extraordinary reduction in global poverty and rapid extension of lifespans. Despite this, the core concepts seem less popular than at any point in my lifetime, a legacy of abject political failure to tackle faultlines exposed by financial meltdown ten years ago.
Yet even where incomes remain static, the purchasing power of dollars, euros and pounds has been rising for many key items such as clothes, computers, food and electrical goods. As the rapacious Facebook rightly comes under attack for abusing customers, it is worth remembering how technology, for all its faults, has speeded up the spread of progress and prosperity around the planet. The Paris taxi market is just one of many being disrupted by new devices, smart software and advanced algorithms to the benefit of consumers. And not just in the West – mobile money, for instance, has provoked the most dramatic benefits in east Africa.
We are still only in the infancy of this digital revolution that is leaving lawmakers trailing in its wake, as seen again by the ease with which Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg ran rings round a United States senate committee. Indeed, the website on which you are reading these words is part of a lethal challenge confronting the newspaper industry to which I have devoted more than three decades of my life. This pace of change can be alarming, especially to those on wrong side of the technology divide or who lack the skills needed to navigate the new world. And the gig economy raises a host of issues, not least over protection of workers’ rights and parity of trade. But, ultimately, increased competition is good for both consumers and wider society.
Unfortunately politicians have reacted to this fast-changing world by either ignoring vexatious problems caused by technological change – such as those multinational firms avoiding tax, abusing data or entrenching new monopolies – or by siding with vested interests in doomed attempt to thwart digital invaders. There needs to be smart, not stifling, regulation – plus politicians who can grasp the implications of this evolving new world. But we should not forget capitalism is a remarkably progressive force, especially when unleashed in tandem with technology. Flag down a black cab in Paris if you don’t believe me.