Some taxi drivers like to talk, others don’t. Max Roy, president of the Syndicat des Maîtres Cochers et taxis de la ville de Nice, has quite a lot to say.
I’ve met taxi drivers who were quick to moan about the job but, I’ve always noted, they rarely seemed inclined to give it up. In some cases it’s literally in their blood. Max Roy, an amiable man in his forties, has been at the wheel for over twenty years and is of the sixth generation of his family to be in the trade. “But I’m the end of a line,” he told me, “I’ve got a daughter and this is no job for a young woman.” Of France’s some 47,000 taxi drivers over 80% are men; in Nice there are 437 licenced taxis – a figure unchanged for close on 50 years – with 60 women drivers (that’s a two-third increase since 1990).
VTCs ... They’ve got to do something
Although there are obviously fluctuations across the year, on an average day a driver will have around a dozen fares. Like most of the French, they’re evasive about their earnings but a hardworking driver is likely to take home something like €2500 a month. In Nice there’s a working pattern of six days on, two days off; in Cannes, for comparison, taxis take to the road every other day. Recently, given the economic crisis, things have been quite tough. “When money’s very tight,” admitted Roy, “people are less likely to take a taxi.”
What I realised, talking to Max Roy, is that he and his colleagues do have some good reasons to moan and not just about money being tight. “To put it bluntly, the big issue is with unfair competition, above all from the VTCs or voitures de tourisme avec chauffeurs. When these were introduced they were intended to be upmarket cars to be booked by a few wealthy tourists and business travellers. They were not supposed to ply for hire. In fact, what’s happened is that many of the guys with a VTC licence are driving scruffy little cars you couldn’t turn up in at the Negresco or the Carlton, and picking up passengers wherever they can – and often at lower fares than ours. Driving those cheapo vehicles and in general with lower costs than we do they can undercut what we charge. It’s easy to get a VTC licence – you can do it online – and the supervision they get is quite inadequate. A real taxi-driver – like all of our members – is well qualified. You have to pass a bunch of exams, including in first aid. Better not have your heart attack in a VTC. At the last count there were 1300 of these voitures de tourisme in the Alpes-Maritimes ... and around 1000 taxis. We’ve made it clear to the government that this just can’t go on. They’ve got to do something.”
But the VTCs aren’t the only cause of grievance. “Even worse, of course, are the unlicenced so-called taxis – pirates, in fact – who target tourists especially at the train station and elsewhere. These drivers are often foreigners – I came across a Romanian the other day – and they’re dangerous: no licence, no insurance, no training, nothing.” On top of unfair competition, the drivers also have to put up with racketeering by hotels ... and even hospitals. “If you want business from the big hotels you’ve got to grease the palms of the senior reception staff. Even worse, hospital people often look for a cut when they call you in to transport a patient.” (I came across evidence suggestive of this at Archet 2.)
Within five years or so the tramway is due to be extended with frequent services between downtown Nice and the airport. What’s Max Roy’s take on that? “Well, that’s not something we welcome, to be honest, and it will reduce our market. On the other hand I’m not totally gloomy. There’ll still be a lot of tourists and business travellers who will prefer a cab to waiting around for a tram and hauling their bags on themselves. What we would appreciate, though, is that as well as extending the tramway the city takes real steps to deal with the VTCs and the illegals.”
A few brebis galeuses
I doubt if any readers are wiping away tears as they hear of the taxi drivers’ grievances. After all, as we’ve often recorded in these pages, in Nice they’ve gained a reputation as dodgy operators, up to all sorts of tricks (rigged compteurs, unnecessarily long routes to destinations, straight overcharging and so on). Foreigners and the elderly are favourite targets of the less scrupulous among les maîtres cochers. What does Max Roy have to say to this? “Look, out of 437 drivers you’re bound to have a few brebis galeuses – bad apples – and just a handful of guys like that can give us all a bad name. In an average week there are some 30,000 taxi trips taken in Nice. If in just 1% of cases there’s trickery that’s up to 300 rip-offs in seven days. Enough to get us that reputation and we don’t need that but some guys get easily tempted.”
That I can easily believe. I recall a few years ago, just before the euro came in, being driven from Constellation to the airport ... a journey of – what? – 7 minutes. Arrived at Terminal One, the driver gave me a big smile (evoked by my accent) and asked for ... 115 francs. I was silent for a moment and then leant forward: “Ecoute, vieux con,” I rasped, “allons à l’intérieur pour en discuter avec les flics.” Now it was the driver who fell silent before turning to me with another big smile. “Ah, Monsieur, I did not realise you live here and speak such good French. The fare ... that we shall forget.” We had quite a friendly chat after this act of generosity. “You know,” he told me, “if you were in my place, you would do the same with the foreigners.” Frankly, hand on heart, I didn’t feel easily able to say he was wrong. When I related this to Max Roy, he laughed: “Now that one I call a psychologist.”