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European taxis protest against app competition

Taxi drivers in London, Paris and other European capitals brought chaos to the streets on Wednesday in protest against new car-hailing apps such as Uber which have shaken up the industry.

LONDON: Taxi drivers in London, Paris and other European capitals brought chaos to the streets on Wednesday in protest against new car-hailing apps such as Uber which have shaken up the industry.

About 10,000 of London's iconic black cabs intend to converge around the tourist hub of Trafalgar Square during the afternoon, while hundreds of drivers in Paris blocked the capital's airports during the morning rush hour.

Protests are also expected in Madrid, Rome, Milan and Berlin as long-running complaints about competition from private hire and unlicensed taxis are focused on the new challenge posed by technology.

California-based tech company Uber is the main target of the taxi drivers' ire. Operating in 128 cities in 37 different countries, it is the most prominent of a wave of new smartphone-dependent car services.

Uber allows customers to order and pay for a car using their phone, with geo-locating technology connecting them to the nearest taxi driver.

The difference with other private hire cabs -- those that must be pre-booked -- is that Uber drivers use the app to fix the fare, rather than it being calculated by a central operator.

Critics say this amounts to a meter such as those used by traditional London taxis which are forced to pay hefty fees in return for a licence allowing them to pick up customers who hail them on the street.

"We don't want to ban Uber but if they are coming in, they must apply the rules and that is not the case," said Steve McNamara, secretary general of the Licensed Taxi Driver Association (LTDA) in London.

McNamara, who has driven a black cab for 20 years, told AFP he would be "very pleased if 10,000 cabs converge on Trafalgar Square -- it will cause major disruption".

The LTDA is challenging Uber's licensing arrangements at the High Court with a case against the city's Transport For London (TfL) authority.

TfL Chief Operating Office Garrett Emmerson said Wednesday's protest would cause "pointless disruption".

Police have imposed strict instructions on the demonstration, warning that cabs may only converge for one hour between 1300 GMT and 1400 GMT.

But Emmerson warned: "Given the scale of the likely disruption, we would advise drivers to avoid the area if at all possible."

The London protest has been followed by drivers across Europe, where the focus on Uber has reignited long-running disputes about the use of private hire vehicles.

"Uber is deliberately not respecting regulations and on top of that has significant financial means," said Serge Metz, chief executive of French company Taxi G7.

Launched in 2009, Uber was last week valued at a whopping $17 billion (12 billion euros), one of the highest-ever figures for a technology startup.

In London, private hire cars or mini-cabs outnumber the traditional black cabs by two to one, but French taxis are still fighting their presence, albeit with limited success.

They complain that private hire cabs have an unfair advantage as they are not charged the 240,000-euro license required by official taxi owners, and some flout the rules by picking up customers in the street.

Fury at the practice has seen taxi drivers stage several protests, choking major roads across France.

Hundreds of vehicles blocked the main Roissy and Orly airports in Paris on Wednesday, many displaying the banner "taxis on strike" and "No to unfair competition", and they were planning a slow drive back into the city.

Manuel Quina, a taxi driver for five years, told AFP: "Clients should be able to choose their own mode of transport but the law must be respected."

In Rome, taxi drivers are expected to hold a "reverse strike" by charging only 10 euros per trip to fall in line with competitors' prices.

In Milan and Madrid, drivers will strike all day, while convoys of taxis are expected to block traffic in Berlin and Hamburg.

In a jaunty response to the protest, Uber said in an email to subscribers it would offer 50 per cent off its services in Paris.

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