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My first experience with French taxis dates all the way back to 1965 and I’m not about to forget that first cab ride in France! It took me from Orly Airport to a hotel near the Montparnasse train station. As I grasped the little black handle on the back door, I felt like I was on the roller coaster ride of my life. Of course many things have changed over the years since I’ve first arrived here in France. The dark beauty of a Paris by night filled with low parking lights instead of headlights is long past and those yellow beams, so typical of French cars since 1936, have virtually all given way to the standard European bluish white ones we find in the United States.
But other things are also changing nowadays. First of all, automatic radars are cropping up all over the county, and, secondly, for each traffic ticket received, drivers now lose precious points on their licence. Together these two factors are curbing the French cultural habit of “eat slowly, speak moderately and drive fast.”
But it is neither the point system nor the radar that has taxis really slowing down these days. Their union, The National Federation of Taxis, recently called on France’s 500,000 taxis, 17,000 in Paris alone, to demonstrate by slowing road travel to a “snail’s pace” in such major cities as Lyon, Marseille, Toulouse, Montpellier, Nantes, Dijon, and Paris. Their important turnout on Jan. 10 in Paris snarled traffic on the city’s 160 kilometer complex of ring roads known as “la Francilienne and brought an already difficult morning commute to a near standstill. Setting out at 9:00 a.m. from starting points at local Paris airports, the three convoys of some 750 taxis converged at noon in front of the Ministry of Health, in the city’s 7th arrondissement.
The reason behind all this turmoil? To begin with, an attempt by the current government to bring budget cuts to health care. The law on the funding of social security for 2013 opens the doors to agreements and direct competition from other forms of public transportation such as those private vans that pick you up at a hotel and take you to your airport terminal or back. Here in France, the physically handicapped, along with people suffering from life threatening illnesses such as cancer or diabetes, receive 100% health coverage. As long as the taxi belongs to a company or an individual who has signed a formal agreement with the Social Security System, the government “foots” the bill.
The same thing also applies when a person can prove that there was no other means of transportation possible. In this case the client only pays the part that his mutual will owe him. The rest of fare will later be reimbursed by the government. Such forms of transportation by taxi in major cities like Paris currently make up some 15% of the overall client base, but that number is on the rise.
In the country, it’s an entirely different story.
My friend Françoise, who lives in our small northern Burgundy village of some 450 inhabitants, is a cab driver. She didn’t participate in the latest demonstration, but she says that many of her local colleagues did. You see, for Françoise and virtually all of her fellow taxi drivers outside of major cities, medical oriented transportation makes up 90% of their monthly fares. Now Françoise’s company will have to contend with all of the other local businesses dealing in various forms of public transportation and wishing to sign the agreement.
The second issue at hand is the growing number of motorcycle taxi companies sprouting up in Paris and also in cities such as Bordeaux, Grenoble, Lyon or Nice. Subject to professional standards since 2008, these companies are legal in France, though they can’t park around and wait for customers on the streets like taxis, so you are supposed to call and reserve in advance. Slightly more expensive than taxis, a forty minute trip from central Paris to Roissy — half the time it takes by car — will cost you about 70€ (gloves, raingear and overshoes included). Unlike regular taxis, they also require that their customer travel light, for example one piece of hand luggage and a laptop, though two companies “All by Bike” (Paris) and “Moto-Express “ (Grenoble) now propose trailers to carry luggage for an additional 10€ — 15€ fee.
The two hundred or so Parisian motorcycle taxis tend to cater mostly to businessmen intent on not missing their planes, but must be added to the growing number of totally unauthorized taxis that whip up to you on the sidewalk and offer their services at 1:00 a.m., after you have just missed your last metro. In Britain cabs are black. In the US most of them are yellow. In France there is no set rule, but one thing is sure these days, whatever the color of their taxis, French cab drivers are seeing red!