Skip to main content

Paris taxi shortage: It's about jobs

By David Frum, CNN Contributor
July 10, 2012 -- Updated 1826 GMT (0226 HKT)
In Paris, despite attempts at reform, the number of taxis has increased only 14% since 1937.
In Paris, despite attempts at reform, the number of taxis has increased only 14% since 1937.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Paris is suffering from a world-famous taxi shortage, says David Frum
  • Despite attempts at reform, the number of taxis has increased only 14% since 1937, he says
  • Europe's economic crisis is embodied in France's failure to fix this problem, Frum says
  • Frum: Europe's anti-competitive rules that prevent hiring are an economic burden

Editor's note: David Frum is a contributing editor at Newsweek and The Daily Beast and a CNN contributor. He is the author of seven books, including a new novel, "Patriots."

(CNN) -- The taxi rocked to the pounding sounds of French rap music.

My wife turned to our hostess. "Can you ask him to turn it down?"

The hostess waved her hands nervously. "No, it will only offend him." She explained: The massive Paris taxi shortage had transformed the city's cab drivers into so many motorized Soup Nazis: "My cab, my music; if you don't like it -- walk."

Back in 1937, Paris capped the number of taxi permits at 14,000. Now, 75 years later, a bigger and vastly richer Paris receives some 27 million tourist visits per year -- and the number of cabs has edged up less than 14%, to 15,900. Result: In wind and rain and baking sun, Parisians must stand in long lines at taxi stands for cabs that never come.

In 2007, the new government of Nicolas Sarkozy proposed to supplement the existing fleet. It would license 6,500 new cars in Paris, 23,500 in the rest of France. The proposal triggered a strike that shut down the city for a day -- and frightened Sarkozy into surrender.

David Frum
David Frum

Five years later, it's as difficult to find a cab in Paris as ever. (Paris has about 2,000 more cab licenses than New York, which has a much bigger population, but New York has a vast fleet of cars for hire to supplement medallion cabs -- and except for the luxury market, car services are illegal in Paris.)

On the list of world problems, the difficulties of Paris taxi riders may seem to rank low.

Think again.

Almost 3 million French people are now out of work, the severest unemployment in 12 years. Millions more have quit the workforce altogether, subsisting on disability pensions or other social benefits.

Prolonged mass unemployment in Europe has triggered a global debate about the euro currency, and rightly so. Yet it's also true that every day, people in Europe are denied work by dumb laws that prevent willing customers from hiring them.

Adding 30,000 new taxi licenses in France would mean more than 90,000 daily taxi shifts: In other words, upwards of 90,000 new jobs.

And it's not just taxis. France's Raffarin law strictly regulates the creation of new retail premises. Anyone who wishes to create a new store in France of more than 300 square meters must first gain permission from a government commission that includes -- wait for it! -- other existing retailers. In Germany likewise, the federal government until recently forbade stores to stay open past 10 p.m. (In 2011, the federal government transferred authority over hours to the states, some of which have chosen to allow longer openings.)

In almost every European country, restrictions on firing workers have made employers very reluctant about hiring in the first place. That hesitation -- plus heavy payroll taxes that raise hiring costs -- explain why so many European restaurants, cafes, and shops seem so lightly staffed compared to their American counterparts.

These are not macroeconomic issues. They don't involve central banks or currency policy. These are anti-competitive rules that prevent hiring that employers would want to do even in bad economic times.

Fixing these rules requires some political courage, which is never in super-abundant supply. But courage is not the only thing needed. Imagination and ingenuity are even more important.

Go back to our Parisian taxi drivers. Why are they so opposed to adding to the taxi fleet? Interestingly, they're not concerned about competition for fares: They know as well as anybody that the cab shortage is leaving money quite literally standing on the sidewalk.

What concerns them, rather, is the value of their licenses. Paris drivers have paid nearly 200,000 euros for their licenses -- money they have usually borrowed and must work frantically to repay. Drivers regard their licenses as precious capital assets, which they hope to resell in turn.

If the fleet increases, the value of those licenses would presumably drop. Sarkozy's 2007 reform proposals called for giving away the 30,000 additional licenses for free. It said nothing about compensating the existing licensees. If drivers had been reassured on that point, they might have been mollified -- and if they still protested, overriding such protests would have been easier.

France's new president, Francois Hollande, has yet to take a stance on this.

It's not enough for Europe's would-be reformers to summon their courage. They must also be shrewd -- and that's no easy task in a crisis terrifying enough to cause almost anyone to lose his or her head.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Frum.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 2129 GMT (0529 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
April 13, 2014 -- Updated 1856 GMT (0256 HKT)
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1906 GMT (0306 HKT)
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1649 GMT (0049 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1416 GMT (2216 HKT)
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
April 12, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1731 GMT (0131 HKT)
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 2128 GMT (0528 HKT)
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1632 GMT (0032 HKT)
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
Simon Tisdall: Has John Kerry's recent track record left Russia's wily leader ever more convinced of U.S. weakness?
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1640 GMT (0040 HKT)
Mel Robbins says Nate Scimio deserves credit for acting bravely in a frightening attack and shouldn't be criticized for posting a selfie afterward
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1839 GMT (0239 HKT)
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Dr. Mary Mulcahy says doctors who tell their patients the truth risk getting bad ratings from them
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1328 GMT (2128 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says the married Rep. McAllister, caught on video making out with a staffer, won't get a pass from voters who elected him as a Christian conservative with family values
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1143 GMT (1943 HKT)
David Frum says the president has failed to react strongly to crises in Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, encouraging others to act out
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 2057 GMT (0457 HKT)
Eric Liu says Paul Ryan gets it very wrong: The U.S.'s problem is not a culture of poverty, it is a culture of wealth that is destroying the American value linking work and reward
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1151 GMT (1951 HKT)
Frida Ghitis writes: "We are still seeing the world mostly through men's eyes. We are still hearing it explained to us mostly by men."
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Chester Wisniewski says the Heartbleed bug shows how we're all tangled together, relying on each other for Internet security
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1926 GMT (0326 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says an Ohio school that suspended a little kid for pointing his finger at another kid and pretending to shoot shows the growth in "zero tolerance" policies at school run amok
ADVERTISEMENT