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Uber braces for face-off in France over its labour practices

Uber Technologies Inc is bracing for a political storm in France.

[PARIS] Uber Technologies Inc is bracing for a political storm in France.

The country's taxi unions have called for a nationwide, unlimited strike starting June 25, demanding that the French government crack down on the app-based ride service's use of unlicensed chauffeurs. The San Francisco-based company's UberPop application is already opposed by the government.

Companies like Uber "continue to sell applications that promote undeclared labor," the unions said in a statement, adding that they "support all targeted actions, organised from this day on against Uber."

French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve on Wednesday asked the country's police and the tax fraud office to step up monitoring UberPop chauffeurs. The special police unit, dubbed "Les Boers," has already made 420 legal filings against what they say are clandestine taxis using UberPop and similar services, Mr Cazeneuve said.

The latest twist in France complicates Uber's operations, which have faced issues in practically every European country where it is present, including Portugal, Belgium and Germany.

On Thursday, London's Private Hire Car Association asked transport authorities to seek an immediate suspension of Uber operations, citing public safety concerns. The minicab association says Uber has drivers operating without proper insurance.

The way London transport authorities are "treating them is not consistent with how our drivers are being treated," Steve Wright, the chairman of the association, said in an interview. "Is Uber too big to be deal with? Is the company fireproof?"

Uber is also being challenged at home with California's labour commissioner saying on Wednesday that drivers connecting with clients through its app must be considered as employees, with a minimum wage, mileage compensation and social security. The decision strikes at the heart of Uber's business model.

Investors last year valued it at US$40 billion, partly based on its growth prospects worldwide. Uber, like other "sharing economy" startups, has built a business around a flexible car fleet piloted by people it contends are independent contractors.

In Europe, obstacles range from slow adoption and protesting taxi drivers to outright bans. In France, the company says it has signed up a million users - including 250,000 for UberPop - in just over three years.

Police in the cities of Strasbourg, Marseille and Nantes have prohibited Uber's Pop service. In Lyon, Uberpop was banned on Thursday after taxis planned similar actions, newspapers said.

Uber spokesman in France, Thomas Meister, said the French interior ministry's attitude "is leading to a strong increase in the acts of violence everywhere in France, perpetrated by a small minority of taxi drivers, who've decided to take law into their own hands." Uber is offering legal support to drivers in trouble, he said.

The company's drivers have been threatened with violence.

After Marseille and Nice in recent days, taxi drivers chased Uber drivers in Strasbourg and Lille on Thursday, according to media reports. In Strasbourg, at least one driver was ambushed by taxis who threw flour at him and let down his tires. In Lille, taxis captured an Uber driver and took him to the police, La Voix du Nord reported.

French police in January started handing out fines to Uber drivers, enforcing a law voted in October that bans practices including some used by UberPop, such as cruising in search of clients. Uber has said the rule leaves room for interpretation. Police officers raided Uber's Paris office earlier in March.

A Paris judge who studied the taxi law ruled in December not to block the service. The ruling was appealed by taxi drivers and a new court decision is expected in September.

The company has scrapped with regulators from Houston to Berlin on issues from whether Uber is required to follow existing taxi laws to how it handles rider data and even whether its cars can pick riders up at airports.

Drivers in Brussels risk having their cars confiscated after the city's police tribunal last month ruled they offer a taxi service and should abide by the same rules as cabbies. Germany has probably had the toughest stance. A German court banned commercial transportation services without a license. Uber's UberPop discount service was the main target.