PARIS — Manil Hadjoudj was handing out fliers at the entrance to Sorbonne University, tirelessly repeating, “Do you care about electric scooters?” to passing students, most of whom seemed indifferent to his plea.
“I care about our pension system right now,” one of them said without stopping.
Mr. Hadjoudj, 18, had been hired by the three electric scooter rental companies in Paris to try to persuade young riders to help save their businesses in a vote this Sunday, when the French capital is holding a referendum on whether to ban renting the scooters within city limits.
Five years after the motorized version of the two-wheeled scooters flooded the streets and sidewalks of Paris, this transportation option — whose human-powered version has long been popular with children — has become a topic of adult fury, delight and tension.
City Hall calls them a threat to public safety and environmentally questionable, and wants them gone. The rental companies counter that their scooters are eco-friendly, ease getting around the city and create jobs. They see Paris as a model for good scooter practices around the world.
And Parisians? They have mixed emotions.
“They come in handy at night when you get out of a party and miss the last metro to get home,” said Axel Ottow, 20, stepping out of a subway station. But while he said he used them on rare occasions when no better option was available, he pointed out a commonly citied drawback: He found them “dangerous to ride.”
When the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, opened the rental scooter market to 16 operators in 2019, the city seemed to have all the characteristics of a gold mine for the companies.
Its small geographic size compared to Los Angeles, Berlin or London was ideal for short-distance trips. Many bike lanes had already been installed, offering paths away from cars. And tourists, who turned out to be major clients, could get in some additional sightseeing as they zipped from the Louvre en route to L’Arc de Triomphe.
In 2022, Paris recorded about 20 million trips on 15,000 rental scooters, making it one of the largest markets in the world.
But at least initially, the machines created chaos, with many riders zooming wherever and however they wanted — on sidewalks, down one-way streets, weaving between cars.
“It was an urban jungle,” said David Belliard, the deputy mayor in charge of transportation.
The electric scooters could race up to 19 miles an hour and were parked anywhere and everywhere — sprawled across roads, sidewalks and even chucked into the Seine.
In 2019, a rider was hit by a van and killed, becoming the first but far from the last rental scooter fatality in the city.
Alarmed, the city drafted rules. Scooters were deemed motorized vehicles and forbidden to travel on sidewalks. Their maximum speed was reduced to about 12 miles an hour and even lower near schools, and specific parking spaces were created. The city introduced a fine of 135 euros, or $147, for riding on sidewalks or carrying a cuddling passenger on the vehicles meant for one, which had become a romantic Parisian cliché.
In 2020, the city narrowed the number of operators to three: the San Francisco-based company Lime, the Dutch start-up Dott and Tier, a German start-up.
“Since that initial period of chaos, we have seen an incredible amount of improvement in our service,” said Erwann Le Page, a spokesman for Tier, who said the company provided scooters in towns and cities across France, including other cities like Lyon and Bordeaux. Operators say that they made the vehicles heavier to increase stability and that 96 percent of the machines are now parked where they should be.
But even with all the rule changes, the number of fatal accidents has increased along with scooters’ popularity.
In 2021, 24 people were killed in France while riding a personal or rental scooter or other motorized devices like hoverboards and gyropods, and 413 were seriously injured, according to figures provided by the State Road Safety Department. Last year, 34 people died and 570 were seriously injured in the country. Accidents on scooters have become “a major health problem,” the French National Academy of Medicine said.
“Scooters have an image of lightness and carelessness, but they also cause drama and death,” said Arnaud Kielbasa, who set up an association in 2019 for scooter victims after someone riding one knocked down his wife, who had been carrying their 7-week-old baby girl, who was hospitalized with a concussion.
With 20 million trips taken last year, however, it’s obvious that a huge number of riders accept the danger. For scooter riders, helmets are recommended but not required by law, and the National Academy of Medicine has said that nationally, “in serious crashes, helmets were not worn nine out of 10 times.”
For the employees of the scooter companies, their livelihood is also on the line in Sunday’s vote.
“I don’t know what I’ll do next if the company has no choice but to fire me,” said Salifou Kaba, 26, a Tier employee whose job is to ride around Paris on an electric cargo bike to change the scooters’ batteries. The job has brought him a better place to live, bank loan approvals and stability, he said. “That’s why I’m afraid of Sunday’s results,” Mr. Kaba said.
The companies insist that their scooters, which run on electrically charged batteries, offer a low-carbon alternative to cars, which should, they say, make them attractive to Paris and its mayor, who has championed green initiatives.
The vehicles “helped reduce pollution in about 600 cities in the world, including 100 in France,” said Mr. Le Page, pointing to a city-sponsored study that showed that 19 percent of scooter trips would have otherwise been made by car.
That same study, however, found that more than three-quarters of the users would have otherwise walked, taken public transportation or biked if scooters were not an option.
“Sure, scooters don’t emit any pollution like a car,” countered Mr. Belliard, a member of France’s Green party. “But a big majority would have used modes of transportation that are already decarbonized.”
Nationwide, more than 750,000 electric scooters were sold in 2022, after a record 900,000 in 2021, according to the Federation of Micro-Mobility Professionals, which includes scooter distributors and retailers. And the mayor of Lyon, France’s third largest city, has just agreed to a four-year extension of its contract with Tier and Dott.
But Paris’s City Hall, once excited to bring the new transportation choice to the French capital, is now keen to see it gone. Instead of banning the scooters outright, Ms. Hidalgo and her deputies decided to let the public vote in the referendum. A recent poll showed that 70 percent would vote against keeping them.
If Tier, Lime and Dott lose Sunday’s vote, their contracts with the city will not be renewed, and the scooters’ zigzagging presence in Paris will be gone by the end of August.
The operators have mounted a campaign in favor of keeping the scooters. They have criticized the fact that online voting — rare in France — was not allowed, arguing that its absence deters younger voters from participating. They have also complained that the geographic boundaries of who can vote were too restrictive, excluding people in the suburbs.
In the week before the vote, the social network TikTok was buzzing with messages using the hashtag “sauvetatrott” (“save your scooter”), and Parisian social influencers have expounded on the importance of saving the “most romantic thing to do in Paris” or the only transportation service that’s “not affected by national strikes.”
But many Parisians would find their ban a relief.
“I don’t call them scooters, I call them garbage,” said Olivier Guntzberger, 45, an electronics salesman. Outside his storefront on a narrow street near the Champs-Élysées, 20 scooters were piled in a parking space. “I’m not going to cry over them,” he said.
Catherine Porter contributed reporting.