The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Uber Files put Macron’s neoliberalism in the spotlight

6 min

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In 2017, newly-elected French President Emmanuel Macron trumpeted a new vision for his country’s economic future. “I want France to be a start-up nation,” he said, voicing his desire then to make France a competitive tech player on the world stage and to usher in a flourishing of Silicon Valley-style enterprises.

Half a decade later, Macron can point to a record of success. In January, he hailed the emergence of 25 French tech “unicorns” — now each valued over $1 billion — comfortably ahead of his own earlier target of having 25 such companies by 2025. By 2019, once-notoriously statist France had already become the leading destination for foreign investment in all of Europe.

This was in part thanks to liberalizing measures the French president pushed through, including cuts to the corporate tax rate, a flat tax on capital gains and the streamlining of France’s labor code that made it easier to hire and fire employees. Macron’s government helped encourage billions of dollars worth of foreign investment into the tech sector and offered generous tax credits to certain types of tech businesses.

“American funds were afraid of France for mythical reasons: the taxes, the strikes, a lot of fantasies,” Romain Lavault, general partner at Partech Ventures in Paris, told Bloomberg News last year. “They have been courted, and it’s worked.”

About the Uber Files investigation

His political opponents, who battled Macron in a bruising presidential and parliamentary election cycle this year, long resented Macron’s approach. They argued that it sundered France’s social solidarity and drove deeper economic inequality. Far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon decried what he dubbed the “Uberization” of French society — invoking the U.S. ride-share leviathan as part of a catchall descriptor for Macron’s perceived assault on French worker rights in the service of the interests of wealthy elites.

Until this week, we didn’t quite know how on the nose that term was. Amid a slew of revelations contained within a mammoth leak of documents is considerable evidence of Macron’s cozy dealings with Uber while serving as France’s economy minister from 2014 to 2016. As my colleague Rick Noack noted: “Macron’s backing went far beyond what has been known publicly and on occasion conflicted with the policies of the leftist government he served.”

The more than 124,000 company documents were leaked by Mark MacGann, a former high-ranking Uber executive and European lobbyist, to the Guardian. The outlet shared the vast trove with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which helped lead the project, and dozens of other news organizations, including The Washington Post. The Uber Files, which date to between 2013 and 2017, reveal the ride-hailing company’s aggressive entrance into cities around the world — while frequently challenging the reach of existing laws and regulations.

“I was the one talking to governments, I was the one pushing this with the media, I was the one telling people that they should change the rules because drivers were going to benefit and people were going to get so much economic opportunity,” MacGann said in an interview published Monday. “When that turned out not to be the case — we had actually sold people a lie — how can you have a clear conscience if you don’t stand up and own your contribution to how people are being treated today?”

MacGann had a direct line to Macron while the latter was economy minister. In one instance, after local officials in Marseille had banned UberX service in the fall of 2015, MacGann texted Macron for help. “I will look into this personally,” Macron wrote back. “Let’s stay calm at this stage.” The local authority in Marseille soon backtracked.

As the documents revealed, Macron was considered internally by Uber as a “true ally.” At a time when Uber’s notoriously aggressive tactics of expansion landed it in legal hot water, Macron and his staff held several undeclared meetings with company executives.

Uber executives “believed that Macron was willing to support them by pushing for more lenient treatment of the company from regulators,” Noack wrote. Even as legal scrutiny of Uber began to increase — including from Directorate General for Competition, Consumer Affairs and Fraud Prevention — authorities attached to Marcon’s own ministry, MacGann wrote in a 2014 email to colleagues that the French President had “told his cabinet to talk to the DGCCRF to ask them to be ‘less conservative’ ” in interpreting the law.

Asked for comment ahead of publication of the documents, the French presidency said in a statement to The Post and other outlets that the “economic and employment policies at the time, in which [Macron] was an active participant, are well known” and that his “functions naturally led him to meet and interact with many companies.”

Macron’s championing of Uber and similar gig work is no secret. In a 2016 interview, he defended the company, telling his interlocutor to go to a poor suburb and “tell young people there who are willingly working for Uber that it would be better to do nothing or deal drugs.”

Uber promised South Africans better lives but knew drivers risked debt and danger

But the Uber Files have triggered a new firestorm of criticism. They show Macron to be “a lobbyist at the service of foreign private economic interests,” far-right politician Sebastien Chenu told France Info radio on Monday morning, attacking the president as an “an ideologue for deregulation, for globalization.”

Aurélien Taché, a former member of Macron’s centrist party who is now part of the left-wing opposition in parliament, described the findings as a “state scandal” that raised questions about Macron’s “conception of loyalty in politics.” Fabien Roussel, leader of the French Communist Party, said Macron’s behavior was “against all our rules, all our social laws and against workers’ rights.” Mathilde Panot, the parliamentary leader of Mélenchon’s party, said Macron had presided over the “pillage of the country” and had been an agent for a “U.S. multinational aiming to permanently deregulate labor law.”

Though they have few constitutional mechanisms to call Macron in for questioning, opposition parliamentarians hope to launch some form of special inquiry into his actions. A separate no-confidence vote against Macron’s prime minister, Élisabeth Borne, failed Monday.

Macron, as he has for much of his tenure, remained aloof. On Monday, he hosted a major summit of some 180 foreign business executives in the palace at Versailles. Billions of dollars of new deals were on the table, including a close to $6 billion proposal to build a new semiconductor factory near the Italian and Swiss borders. The event is dubbed “Choose France.”

Read the investigation: The Uber Files

The Uber Files is an international investigation into the ride-hailing company’s aggressive entrance into cities around the world — while frequently challenging the reach of existing laws and regulations. Documents illuminate how Uber used stealth technology to thwart regulators and law enforcement and how the company courted prominent political leaders, Russian oligarchs and media conglomerates as it sought footholds outside the United States.

The project is based on more than 124,000 emails, text messages, memos and other records that a former top lobbyist for Uber, Mark MacGann, provided to the Guardian. It shared the material with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which helped lead the project, and dozens of other news organizations, including The Washington Post.

Read more from the investigation:

Key takeaways from the Uber Files

Uber leveraged violent attacks against its drivers to pressure politicians

Former top executive, Mark MacGann, comes forward as source of Uber Files

‘Hit the kill switch’: Regulators entered Uber’s offices only to see computers go dark before their eyes

Uber promised South Africans better lives but knew drivers risked debt and danger

As Uber steamrolled into France, Emmanuel Macron was a ‘true ally’