PARIS: Two top Uber executives appeared Thursday in court in charges that could send them to prison and offer the ride-hailing company one of its most serious legal challenges to date in France.
The San Francisco-based company shut down the low-cost UberPop service, which connected users to non-professional drivers and prompted the criminal charges. But it continues to operate in France despite repeated strikes and sometimes violent tensions with taxi drivers, and is not outlawed entirely as it is in Spain and Italy.
Charges against Thibaud Simphal, general manager for France, and Pierre-Dimitri Gore-Coty, chief for Western Europe, include running an illegal taxi operation, commercial deception and violation of French privacy law by illegally stocking, processing and recording personal information.
They face up to five years in prison and a 300,000 euro ($338,000) fine each if convicted. Uber France is also charged and faces a 1.5 million-euro ($1.7 million) fine.
The two managers were notified of the charges directly by the Paris prosecutor's office just after being held in custody for hours last June.
A spokesman for Uber France, Thomas Meister, said it is "extremely unusual to be summoned to appear in court directly by a prosecutor" after a police investigation. He also questioned the lack of oversight from an investigating judge or the French agency that specializes in privacy violations.
"Our lawyers don't even know what we are exactly blamed for," especially in the privacy counts, Meister told The Associated Press ahead of the trial.
More than 200 UberPop drivers have been fined under fast-track procedures in France and one was handed a 15-day suspended prison term, but Thursday's trial is the first for Uber managers in France. Uber France has already been convicted of commercial deception and fined 150,000 euros ($170,000) over UberPop.
French taxis drivers argue that Uber sidesteps taxes, social charges and licensing fees, and endangers passengers.
Uber calls the French system outdated and says it needs radical reform to keep up with technological changes.
"We are not challenging labor law", said Meister, the Uber France spokesman. "We rather put order into the system. We are the symptom of a problem, not responsible for the problem."
Meister complained critics point the finger only at Uber, not at similar smartphone app-based services like Heetch, a French startup. "There are double standards", he said.
The French government has kept up its offensive with document checks of drivers suspected to be illegally moonlighting for Uber and similar services.
On Thursday, hours before the start of the trial, police teamed up with anti-fraud investigators to check taxis and car services at Paris' Gare de Lyon train station. Several chauffeurs were fined for illegal taxi activity after being caught carrying a single passenger. The drivers have particular status allowing them to carry a minimum of two passengers, but many skirt the regulations and use platforms like Uber to pick up single passengers.
"We are talking about transporting people. So when you are in this business you need to have a qualification and respect the rules," said Laurent Grandguillaume, the new mediator in the conflict between taxis and Uber-like alternatives.