A row has erupted between the company that runs Paris's flagship electric car sharing scheme Autolib and the city authorities over the tens of millions of euros debt it has run up.
Bolloré the group which runs Autolib and named after Vincent Bolloré is demanding authorities pay €40 million each year to pay off the debt the scheme has run up.
Bolloré says that the much-lauded electric car-sharing scheme could accrue as much as €293 million in debt by 2023, the year when their contract to run the scheme finishes.
As a result, Bolloré is asking the City of Paris and the local authorities of hundreds of other towns in the greater Paris Ile-de-France region, which are served by Autolib, to contribute €40 million each year to pay off the debt.
The mayor of Paris, and the 102 other cities concerned in Ile-de-France are refusing to bow to that demand and denounce Bolloré's request.
What is Autolib'?
It is an electric car sharing service with a signature grey fleet of vehicles rolled out in Paris and the surrounding Ile-de-France region in 2011.
It eventually saw 4,000, battery-powered cars stationed at over 1,100 self-service docking stations across the city and the surrounding suburbs.
It worked in the same way as the bike sharing scheme Velib' where users sign up for a subscription and pay a small fee each time they use the car depending on how long they use it for.
Naturally, it was intended that they would be a source of profit for the city and Bolloré when they were introduced.
What went wrong?
Autolib, launched in 2011, was not supposed to cost taxpayers anything. If anything, Bolloré originally expected to make €56 million profits by 2023.
By 2016, the number of Autolib subscribers continued to grow and reached a peak of 110,000. But by the end of 2017, however, that number fell to 102,000 subscribers.
Nicolas Louvet, director of 6-t, a research office specialized in urban mobility, told AFP that he believes Autolib' was partly a victim of its success, because the 4,000 electric vehicles made available on public roads were snapped up by users which meant others were left frustrated when they were not able to find a car available.
“Today, we are in a pattern of both decline in the number of users and decline in the number of rentals, and it is not clear how it can go up,” Louvet said at the end of 2017.
Another explanation for the drop in subscribers lies in the state of the self-service cars which can sometimes be found dirty, damaged and increasingly used by homeless people to sleep in.
The Autolib are often “in a rather pitiful state, because they are poorly maintained by the users”, said Louvet and the customers “are disappointed by more and more dirty vehicles.”
“They are full of cigarettes, lighters, bottles, bags with rubbish. People take drugs in the cars.” François, an Autolib employee in Paris told France Info.
Competition from the growth of cheapish ride-hailing apps like Uber, which were considered easier to use than Autolib, also made it more difficult for the scheme.
Last year Autolib wanted to close some 20 percent of the stations, which they said were making no money, in order to cut down on losses.
Although it wasn't all a failure. An Autolib car is taken out every five second and the scheme had a 92 percent approval rating.
So, what happens now?
In the contract negotiated in 2001, Bolloré is only required to cover the costs of losses of up to €60 million. Beyond that, Paris and the municipalities of Ile-de-France must pay, according to Capital, a monthly French magazine covering economics.
The Bolloré group, however, is being accused by the SAVM union (Autolib' Velib' Métropole), responsible for monitoring the public service delegation entrusted to Bolloré, of unjustly over charging French authorities.
There have been calls for an independent audit of Bolloré's books.
Both parties have been in talks but there is no sign of a solution and the dispute may be settled in court. But with so much debt hanging over it the future does not look bright for the Autolib service.
And what about the Velib' bikes?
It's a bit of a double whammy for Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo becasue the Paris bike sharing scheme has also descended into chaos since it changed hands.