By Philip Blenkinsop
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Uber has taken its battle for acceptance in Europe to Brussels with a complaint against a French law, the first of what could become a series of challenges to EU member states reluctant to open their markets to the online taxi-booking service.
Launched in California four years ago, the service has rapidly become popular in a number of countries because it often undercuts established taxi and minicab services.
However, taxi drivers across Europe say Uber breaks local taxi rules and violates licensing, insurance and safety regulations. It has faced legal action in Germany and a number of European countries.
Uber last month filed a first complaint with the European Commission against a new French law it says favors regular taxis at its expense.
It says the law discriminates against private-hire vehicles, which it uses, by not allowing consumers to see the location of such cars online - a service it says is available for regular taxis.
"We are looking at existing EU law to defend internal markets," Mark MacGann, Uber's head of public policy in Europe, Middle East and Africa, told Reuters in an interview. "What we find is that market is in fact very fragmented."
The Commission said it had received Uber's complaint and was assessing whether, as Uber believes, France should have notified it of the new law. A spokeswoman said there was no EU regulation on such services.
"So it becomes a national matter, but one does not operate in a complete vacuum and one needs to obey internal market rules," she said.
Uber is seeking to appeal to a new European Commission that is desperate to find ways to boost Europe's stagnant economy and looking to expanding digital services as a pillar of growth.
The firm is also insistent that it is not a taxi service but a technology company enabling customers to find rides.
"We're like Expedia. No one flies with Expedia, but they do book their flights there," said MacGann, who previously worked as a lobbyist for the NYSE Euronext securities exchanges.
Uber is already present in 18 EU member states and plans to be active in all 28 eventually.
With a valuation of up to $40 billion, it has realized it is no longer seen as a little guy battling entrenched monopolies and needs a softer approach.
MacGann said studies in U.S. cities showed established taxis need not see Uber as a threat. "In the U.S., people taking Uber are mostly people not normally taking taxis," he said.
(Editing by Alastair Macdonald and Pravin Char)