French president Macron’s Uber support ran deeper than the public knew

The French president has never hid that he was an early Uber supporter. But documents suggest that his backing for the controversial company went far beyond what has been known publicly.

(Lucy Naland/Washington Post illustration; Eliot Blondet/AFP/Getty; Uber screenshots; iStock)

PARIS — As Uber rushed to expand across Europe, company executives received worrisome news out of southern France. A local official in the port city of Marseille just appeared to have banned the UberX service, throwing the company’s plans for the country into turmoil.

Mark MacGann, Uber’s top European lobbyist, appealed for help. He texted Emmanuel Macron, who in the fall of 2015 was the French economy minister.

The next morning, MacGann received a response. “I will look into this personally,” Macron wrote. “Let’s stay calm at this stage,” he added.

The local authority backtracked the same day.

It’s no secret that Macron, who became France’s president in 2017, was an early supporter of Uber’s controversial expansion, which involved sometimes-violent clashes between taxi and Uber drivers. But company executives’ internal messages from 2013 to 2017 suggest that Macron’s backing went far beyond what has been known publicly and on occasion conflicted with the policies of the leftist government he served.

Internally, an Uber lobbyist described Macron as a “true ally.” At times, the extent of his early support surprised even company executives.

The documents are part of the Uber Files, a trove of more than 124,000 internal records obtained by the Guardian and shared with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit newsroom that helped lead the project, and dozens of other news organizations worldwide, including The Washington Post. The documents date back more than half a decade, to a period between 2013 and 2017, yet key excerpts directly relate to how Macron has tried to implement his agenda as president.

Over the past five years, he’s faced a mounting backlash to the way he liberalized the French economy, steamrolling anyone who raised concerns over the social impact of his moves, according to his critics.

Read key takeaways from the Uber Files investigation

Macron was reelected for another term in April but subsequently lost his absolute parliamentary majority. Far-left politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a staunch critic of Uber and of other multinationals operating in France, is now the public face of the biggest opposition bloc in the lower house of Parliament.

Mélenchon campaigned heavily on his criticism of the “uberization” of French society, an umbrella term used to describe ride-hailing and home delivery services, and he lashed out against Macron’s support for a sector that he views as having undermined French worker rights.

The Uber documents suggest that concerns voiced years ago about the way Uber entered the French market were, in some cases, justified. As enraged taxi drivers, fearing for their professional survival, clashed with their Uber competitors on the streets of Paris in 2015 and 2016, some company executives viewed the physical confrontations as a means to win public sympathy and support.

Uber’s French resistance grows violent

They believed that Macron was willing to support them by pushing for more lenient treatment of the company from regulators. As legal scrutiny of the company mounted, including from the Directorate General for Competition, Consumer Affairs and Fraud Prevention, an authority attached to Macron’s own ministry, MacGann noted in a 2014 email to colleagues that Macron had “told his cabinet to talk to the DGCCRF to ask them to be ‘less conservative’ ” in interpreting the law. MacGann did not respond to questions about these exchanges, but said that he “met and got to know Emmanuel Macron” during his time at Uber.

Macron’s underlying commitment to Uber’s business model was rarely cast into doubt, despite executives’ concluding later that he was a less valuable ally than they had thought.

In a statement in response to the documents, the French presidency said that the “economic and employment policies at the time, in which [Macron] was an active participant, are well known.”

“His functions naturally led him to meet and interact with many companies engaged in the sharp shift which came out during those years in the service sector, which had to be facilitated by unlocking administrative and regulatory hurdles,” said the Élysée, the office of the French presidency.

Although the Élysée did not directly respond to questions about Uber’s perception that Macron may have been willing to intervene with French authorities on the company’s behalf, Emmanuel Lacresse, Macron’s former deputy chief of staff, denied that this was the case. “The Minister has never intervened with the Bouches du Rhône prefecture concerning the suspension of the Uber X service in Marseille, nor on any legal proceedings whatsoever concerning the Uber company. Nor were instructions given to the DGCCRF,” Lacresse wrote in a statement. (The Bouches du Rhône prefecture was the local authority that appeared to have banned UberX in 2015.)

In a response, Laurent Nuñez, the official who in 2015 infuriated Uber with his Marseille decision and who is now a top national security official under Macron, denied having been pressured by Macron’s economy ministry to take a more lenient approach at the time.

A spokesman for the DGCCRF “strongly” denied that Macron had put pressure on the authority. “Our investigative services have not been pressured or induced into any form of leniency on the Uber case,” he said.

The idea for Uber was partly born in France in 2008, according to Kalanick, and the company’s path there was paved in part by a major deregulation effort that Macron helped to champion. But Uber became serious about having a major French presence only around the time Macron became economy minister, in 2014.

Macron presided over one of the government’s most important departments from the third floor of the “fortress of Bercy.” In the imposing building that juts out over the banks of the Seine River, Macron met with Uber executives and strategized over moves that at times appeared to be opposed to the objectives of then-Prime Minister Manuel Valls and others who advocated stricter rules for Uber and similar companies.

In 2015, Uber talked with Macron about encouraging a “supportive” member of Parliament to try to amend one of Macron’s own legislative proposals to make it more Uber-friendly. Their alternative plan, according to an internal summary from Thibaud Simphal, then Uber’s general manager in France, was a “strong comms campaign in the next four weeks” as Macron and Uber jointly pushed rules to make it easier for the company to recruit professional drivers.

The internal documents suggest that in exchange for eased rules, Uber may have pulled the plug on its most controversial service in the country, UberPop, which had relied on nonprofessional drivers. It would instead focus on a model centered on licensed drivers.

On July 3, the day Uber suspended UberPop, executives shared a screenshot among one another that appeared to show Macron telling then-Uber chief executive Travis Kalanick that Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve had “accepted the deal.”

“Cazeneuve will keep the taxi quiet and i will gather everybidy next week to prepare the reform and correct the law,” the message continued.

In 2016, months after the suspension of UberPop, a government decree seemed to tweak the rules in Uber’s favor, significantly reducing the number of required hours of training.

Cazeneuve, in a response to a request for comment, denied having any knowledge of a deal. In a statement, Uber said that “it’s false to suggest that there was a deal or that the rules were eased.” The company added that the suspension of its UberPop service was “prompted by the level of violence targeting our users, both drivers and riders, which no longer allowed us to operate the service safely” and was “in no way followed by more favorable regulations.”

“Uber never benefited from any favor or privilege from prefectures, the Ministry of Economy or MPs in France. All my interactions with public authorities were conducted in good faith,” Simphal, who still works for the company as global head of sustainability, said in a statement.

In a response to questions from The Post and other news organizations, Kalanick did not directly address his text conversation with Macron on July 3. Devon Spurgeon, a spokesperson for Kalanick, said in a statement that “Uber’s expansion initiatives were led by over a hundred leaders in dozens of countries around the world and at all times under the direct oversight and with the full approval of Uber’s robust legal, policy, and compliance groups.”

Uber’s relationship with Macron was especially sensitive because its operations in France were, by this point, under growing legal scrutiny. Months before Macron had offered to look into the Marseille official’s apparent suspension of UberX — a service that relies on professional drivers — two company executives were taken into custody. They were later convicted of complicity in operating an illegal transportation service. A ruling from France’s highest court is still pending.

Uber’s internal documents show that Macron was in frequent contact with Uber officials at the time, including Kalanick.

Ostensibly, Uber’s pitch to the French public seemed perfect for Macron’s hopes for turning France into a “start-up nation.” Both he and the company promised that their plans would benefit disadvantaged groups neglected in the past.

Uber leveraged violent attacks against its drivers to pressure politicians

Uber initially recruited many drivers from some of the country’s poorest communities, where its lofty promises quickly gained traction. Those who joined, encouraged by Macron and others, hoped to change the course of their lives.

In some cases, Uber may indeed have been an opportunity. “At the beginning, it was really interesting to work for Uber,” said Sarah Abdelnour, an associate professor at the Paris Dauphine University who conducted extensive research and interviews around 2016 and 2017.

But what those drivers had not known was that “they were used to defend a company that had a desire to establish itself by creating a buzz, by surfing on almost a kind of social discourse,” Abdelnour said.

Uber’s expensive strategy to crowd taxis out of the market dramatically changed in the fall of 2015. The company unexpectedly slashed fares, sharply cutting its drivers’ earnings. Disillusioned, many stopped accepting ride requests.

But others — some having borrowed the equivalent of thousands of dollars to buy their own cars — had little choice other than to keep driving for the company.

“The drivers I met were forced to use Uber,” said Sophie Bernard, a second researcher with Paris Dauphine University. “One can use other platforms — in fact there are lots of competitors in France — but it’s really Uber that controls the market.”

In a statement, Uber defended its operations in France, saying that “well-regulated platform work has the potential to offer opportunities to all.” A 2016 study commissioned for the company suggests that Uber and similar platforms have been a “major net contributor to job creation and economic growth,” especially in and around Paris, the company added.

Even as criticism of the company mounted, Macron continued to echo Uber’s marketing narratives, applauding the company in a 2016 interview for combating “exclusion.”

Macron’s support “was extremely important” for Uber, said Laurent Lasne, author of a book that criticizes the multinational for its business practices. “It was for sure a form of legitimization.”

Why his ‘city of heart’ does not love Macron back

The extent to which Macron upended France’s transportation sector is a matter of perspective.

Uber argues that its expansion “helped grow” the overall market and did not come at the expense of taxi drivers.

But according to taxi unions, at least initially, Macron’s backing of Uber aggravated an existential threat to their businesses. Within months, demand for taxi rides plummeted, according to the unions, and taxi licenses dramatically lost value — dropping tens of thousands of dollars, according to Guillaume Lejeune, a sociologist who has focused on the taxi industry.

In the end, though, Uber’s bet on Macron may have been a lose-lose situation for all sides.

Over time, executives began asking whether they had overestimated his influence. After Uber suspended its controversial UberPop service in France in July 2015, with managers believing the company had a “deal” with Macron and the government that would normalize its status, French authorities surprised the company and raided Uber’s offices.

“Sorry to bother you,” lobbyist MacGann texted Macron, telling him that about 20 government investigators had barged in.

“Can you ask your services to give us advice?” MacGann asked. Macron didn’t text back.

By early 2016, Macron found himself increasingly isolated within the left-wing government, which appeared ready to side with the taxi unions on issues such as additional scrutiny of transit apps that were not compliant with the law.

“Macron, he has been sidelined,” MacGann wrote in an email on Jan. 30, 2016, shortly after the government had announced its crackdown. “We exchanged SMS last night and he is very frustrated,” he wrote.

Damien Leloup, Adrien Sénécat, Abdelhak El Idrissi and Martin Untersinger from Le Monde, Harry Davies from the Guardian and Elodie Guéguen from Radio France contributed to this report.

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