- - Wednesday, December 23, 2015

PARIS — There is nothing more quintessentially French than joining friends for a good meal at a charming corner bistro.

Then “Uberization” came along.

Today, tourists in the French capital can log onto VizEat, a French website that arranges dinners in private homes whose owners want to share meals with foreign visitors.

VizEat co-founder Jean-Michel Petit, a venture capitalist, conceived the idea after eating with locals on an island in Lake Titicaca in Peru. He launched the site last year. Now VizEat operates in 90 countries and includes more than 10,000 hosts worldwide.

“It strikes a chord for people looking for a more authentic experience,” said Mr. Petit, adding that hosts may charge diners but must prepare the food themselves, use only fresh ingredients and eat with their guests. “We realized that dining was not so much about the food experience. It was more about the human exchange.”

Still, in a nation that has long railed against “Anglo-Saxon capitalism,” exalted labor over management and pioneered the 35-hour workweek, the gig economy and its Web-based ability to “disrupt” traditional ways of commerce are proving both deeply unsettling and highly seductive.

Uber-like businesses have proliferated at a phenomenal rate in France in recent years, creating jobs and establishing a generation of entrepreneurs who might hold the keys to revitalizing the country’s lagging economy.

“Uberization unlocks doors,” said Philippe Corrot, co-founder and chief executive of Mirakl, a Paris-based software company that develops online marketplaces. “These are models that create employment and extra earnings. Today, anyone can add to their income by renting a space at home, selling products on Amazon or as a chauffeur.”

But VizEat, Uber and similar businesses create jobs that don’t conform to traditional French notions of employment, said Diana Filippova, co-founder of OuiShare, a French think tank that conducts research on collaborative ventures. That has stirred controversy and forced the French to face uncomfortable truths.

“To some French people, the word ‘uberization’ is symbolic of an attack at the heart of our social model, a model based on the postwar golden years with lifelong salaried employment,” she said. “In a way, it is the very failure of the French economic model that is pushing people toward these services, as both customers and workers.”

VizEat applies the same model to dining that Uber, the fast-growing San Francisco home-rental website Airbnb and other Internet-based, crowdsourcing businesses brought to the service, transportation and hospitality industries. Eschewing bricks-and-mortar storefronts, VizEat enlists a French legion of temporary workers who use their own properties while often bypassing or ignoring taxes, licenses and health codes, a model that vociferous critics here say hurts full-time workers and gives the company an unfair advantage over traditional eateries.

“I am not afraid to say it: This is the black market economy,” warned Didier Chenet, president of France’s National Union of Hoteliers, Restaurateurs, Cafe Owners and Caterers.

Five years ago, Airbnb had around 5,000 hosts in Paris, said Mr. Chenet. Today, around 60,000 Parisian homes advertise rooms on Airbnb during the summer. VizEat has around 3,000 hosts in France. There is no reason to believe that number won’t increase threefold in the next few years, he said.

“On VizEat, there are people who say, ‘Come and have dinner at my house for 10 euros.’ If it is 10 euros” — just under $11 — “we can say [that is] nothing. It is not a business,” Mr. Chenet said. “But look at the site. Some say, ‘Come and have dinner at my house for 80 euros with an open bar.’ It’s not possible for us to let this slide.”

Making headway

Despite the country’s long tradition of resistance to such innovations, Uber-like businesses are nonetheless making headway in France.

The country’s biggest success, BlaBlaCar, claims to offer 2 million long-distance trips with drivers who have spare seat in their cars in 19 countries. Raising almost $200 million last year in private equity funding, it’s now valued at $1.6 billion. The car has been hailed as an alternative to Europe’s once-vaunted, but now aging, rail system.

Popular startup HelloCasa links plumbers, painters and other tradesmen with homeowners, often providing quicker and more reliable service than slow-moving big firms.

Another French-born online platform, PopMyDay, offers at-home hairdressing, manicures and makeup services from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. — a longer period than most beauty shops in France that must adhere to strict government-imposed hours.

The backlash is already in full swing, one that companies such as Uber have encountered in other countries with entrenched economic interests as they seek to export their models worldwide.

In June, taxi drivers throughout France demonstrated against UberPop, a version of Uber’s service for nonprofessional drivers. The service was banned in France in January, but authorities didn’t enforce the law until professional cabbies overturned cars, burned tires and attacked Uber vehicles. Uber’s regular ride-hailing, which in France is restricted to professionally licensed drivers, was allowed to continue.

Mr. Chenet’s organization recently thwarted a proposed partnership between the state-owned National Society of French Railways, or SNCF, and Airbnb. Under the partnership, SNCF’s online reservation site would have offered travelers a chance to rent out their homes during their absence via Airbnb. But the powerful hoteliers union lobbied heavily against the deal.

‘A good first step’

The partnership was canceled Dec. 15, the day it had been slated for unveiling. Despite the setback, SNCF hasn’t given up on the idea entirely.

“We want to take time to speak with the hotel business professionals to study the conditions in which the new shared economy models could contribute to restart tourism in France,” the company said in a statement.

Paris is the No. 1 destination for Airbnb users, with more than a half-million guests signing up to stay in private residences in the city last year. But officially, Airbnb France employs only a few dozen people and doesn’t owe corporate taxes in the country because its transactions occur in England and Ireland.

“This is all done legally, because our tax system is very deficient — but to us it is tax evasion nonetheless,” Mr. Chenet said. “It is a question of morality.”

The union leader’s argument rings hollow for the more than 10 percent of French citizens who are unemployed, Ms. Filippova said.

“Morality has nothing to do with it,” said Ms. Filippova. “That’s just a discourse used to guarantee pre-existing situations. We don’t go to work out of morality; we go to work to ensure a revenue so we can sustain ourselves.”

With powerful forces lined up on opposite sides, France’s politicians are eagerly trying to find a middle ground.

Last week, French lawmakers adopted a rule to require Airbnb-style collaborative members to send their hosts annual income sheets to spell out their tax obligations.

The measure didn’t satisfy Mr. Chenet. “It is a good first step, but it’s not because we ask [Airbnb hosts] to send a paper to their lessors that they will declare their income,” he said.

Ms. Filippova also didn’t think the legislation would change much. She said France needs a far deeper national debate about the future of the Gallic economic model in the age of Uber. France needs jobs, and Uber-like businesses aren’t going to disappear anytime soon no matter what established business owners think.

“It would be beneficial for all parties to exchange openly so as to find the best solutions for all,” she said.

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