Europeans Find Gas Prices Taxing

By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, September 3, 2005

PARIS, Sept. 2 -- As they grapple with soaring gas prices in France, Serge Poitevieau, a cafe owner, and Frederique Usher, an unemployed but well-heeled young woman, have dramatically different perspectives and radically different solutions.

Poitevieau, 53, has stopped using his Spanish-made Seat automobile except to make weekend visits to his parents. He said he now gets around mostly on foot. As for France's notoriously high gas tax, "I say bravo," he said, leaning across the bar. "I think they should raise it more to discourage the traffic."

Usher, who declined to give her age but appeared to be in her late twenties, said the French government should abolish the gas tax, which now accounts for more than 70 percent of the pump price -- about $6.77 a gallon for regular unleaded in Paris.

"I'm going to change cars," Usher said as her golf-cart-sized Smart Car was being delivered by a parking lot attendant. "I'm getting the new Lexus hybrid."

Young or old, working class or upper crust, Europeans are being pummeled by skyrocketing gasoline and oil prices, which are up more than 10 percent over last year's prices and are expected to continue climbing as a result of the blow Hurricane Katrina delivered to the U.S. oil industry this week.

But after years of paying four or five times what Americans pay for gas, Europeans have adjusted their transportation habits, switched to cars that are more fuel-efficient and seem resigned to paying ever higher prices while continuing to explore alternatives.

Subway ridership in Rome skyrocketed this summer as Italians abandoned their cars. Germans are reportedly driving across the border into Poland for cheaper gas, while Poles are crossing into Ukraine to buy even lower-priced fuel. London charges commuters and tourists a special tax for driving into the most congested areas of the city. Some European countries levy high taxes on new cars to discourage sales, and road tolls in some regions are prohibitive: Along one stretch of highway in central France, drivers are presented with a $9.25 bill for a trip of about 60 miles.

European governments have required car companies to develop more fuel-efficient automobiles with smaller engines, unlike in the United States, where gas-guzzling SUVs rule the road, said Christopher Alexander Paillard, co-author of the recent book "The Geopolitics of Oil." He and other analysts said the United States has put too much emphasis on increasing the supply of gas and not enough on curbing its consumption.

"There is the hope that because of this terrible hurricane, public opinion in the U.S. and the government might begin to understand that something has to be done on the demand level," said Pierre Terzian, director of Petrostrategies, a Paris firm that publishes a weekly oil and gas newsletter.

For Europeans, the problem is not the skyrocketing cost of oil, but the gas taxes their countries add on, which in many cases account for two-thirds or more of the price of gasoline. For instance, if France did not levy a tax on gasoline, motorists here would pay about $1.98 a gallon for super unleaded, instead of about $7.09 a gallon.

"You can't blame America or the Arabs" for high gas prices, said a man in Paris as he topped off his four-wheel-drive Toyota. "It's because of the taxes. The government thinks that consumers are vache a lait , " or milking cows.

As a result, European cities are crammed with gas-efficient scooters and motorcycles that zigzag between gridlocked cars. In Paris, where it is rare to spot an SUV, some automobiles are so tiny that it is difficult to imagine people fitting inside.

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