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Reforms have Paris cabbies driving mad

A taxi waits on the Champs Elysees in front of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, France.

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KAI RYSSDAL: If you happened to catch 60 Minutes last night, you saw French president Nicholas Sarkozy walk out on Leslie Stahl. You can't blame the guy for being frustrated, personally or professionally. He and his wife are getting a divorce. His attempts to reform the French pension system have done little but prompt massive strikes.

Earlier this month, railway workers essentially shut Paris down. Air France flight attendants walked out over the weekend. And there could be more -- Sarkozy's promised to take go after rules protecting chemists, lawyers…and taxi drivers. John Laurenson reports curbside in Paris.


John Laurenson: Hi there. I'm doing a piece about getting taxis in Paris...

Italian: [Laughs]

You've found it difficult before finding taxis in Paris?

Italian: It's impossible, it's so difficult!

So how long do you have to wait in the mornings to get a taxi?

Woman: At this time, maybe 10 minutes -- but later it can be like a half an hour.

American: I've waited here 30 minutes.

In the morning, in the evening, after a night out and, of course, when it rains... it's hard, if not downright impossible, to find a taxi in this city. There are considerably fewer cabs in Paris today than there were in the 1920s, because of strict limits on new licences set by the drivers themselves.

There's a 17-year-wait for a free license to drive a taxi in Paris. Otherwise, it'll cost you 185,000 Euros [$263,000 dollars]. And the price is much higher still in Montpellier, Nice or Marseilles.

Jacques Delpla: The taxi market in France is the symbol of everything which goes wrong in France -- you have to pay for working.

That is economist Jacques Delpla, co-author of the reformist manifesto The End of Privileges. He is a member of a commission set up by Sarkozy to identify barriers to economic growth. Its final recommendations are due next month.

Delpla: Because more tourists, business people are asking for taxis, the business is expanding. But the number of people in the game is not. It hurts the consumers, it hurts business people and it hurts job creation.

I finally get a cab and get talking to the driver. He tells me he works 70 hours a week to pay off his licence. The job's a nightmare because of the traffic. And it's the traffic, not the lack of taxis, he says, that makes it difficult to find a cab. It's the same message from Alain Estival, president of France's biggest taxi union.

Alain Estival: [Translation] Paris has the highest density of taxis anywhere in Europe or North America. It's true that at certain times of the day, in some specific places, there is a certain breakdown in the taxi service. But this is due to the traffic -- there are 200 kilometres of traffic jams in and around Paris every day. The taxis are out there, but they're stuck in the jams.

It is true that Paris has about the same number of taxis as London has black cabs. But London also has tens of thousands of minicabs. France's reformers say buying the taxi licences back at market price and de-regulating the business would create 150,000 new jobs. Union leader Estival told me they already saved France once when Paris' taxis brought troops to the front in the First World War -- they're not going to sacrifice themselves again to save the French economy.

Television news: [Report on taxi strike]

...taxi drivers on the news, blocking traffic in cities around the country late last month. If President Sarkozy presses ahead with reform, France's taxis will be driving to the front line again.

In Paris, I'm John Laurenson, for Marketplace.

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