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Last Updated: Thursday, 26 August, 2004, 23:01 GMT 00:01 UK
French wrath over four-wheel drives
By John Laurenson
In Paris

Land Rover Freelander
A powerful presence on the road
For movie stars, sporty people and middle class mothers with children, owning a four-wheel drive has become de rigueur.

With their raised driving positions, providing sweeping views of the road ahead, 4x4s offer comfort, safety and the chance to look down on other motorists.

But for many people, the 4x4 - or sport utility vehicle - has become synonymous with much of what is wrong with the traffic in our towns and cities.

As with other cities across the world, the 4x4 is an increasingly common sight on the streets and boulevards of Paris.

But could the French love affair with the urban 4x4 be coming to an end?

Gas guzzlers

A bill is expected to be debated in France's parliament which could pave the way for a controversial tax incentive scheme, encouraging drivers to buy environmentally friendly cars by punishing those who buy 4x4s.

In choosing one sort of car rather than another you are making yourself responsible for putting more or less pollution into the atmosphere
Yves Leers, Environment and Energy Saving Agency

The move forms part of a raft of government measures aimed at reducing France's greenhouse gas emissions.

Critics say 4x4s guzzle fuel, belch out pollution and are a nuisance for anybody not in the driving seat.

In Paris, views against off-road vehicles are hardening.

City councillors, responding to figures which show some 4x4s produce four times more CO2 emissions than small cars, are drawing up plans to fight pollution which could see 4x4s banned from the city's streets altogether.

Paris' transport chief has described the 4x4 as a polluting, space-occupying and dangerous "caricature of a car".

Less pollution

But despair at the increasingly ubiquitous urban off-roader is not solely confined to Paris.

Smart car
Paris city hall would like to see more smaller cars on its streets

London's Mayor, Ken Livingstone, recently branded 4x4 drivers as "complete idiots".

Yves Leers, of the French government-funded Environment and Energy Saving Agency, believes the tax incentive scheme is a step in the right direction.

"It's a good measure. It will only reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 1% but it's going to teach people that there are cars that pollute more than others."

Sales tax

"In choosing one sort of car rather than another you are making yourself responsible for putting more or less pollution into the atmosphere."

People say the [Toyota] Rav4's, the 4x4s you see most often in the city, are mostly driven by little bourgeois ladies. So what? Where's the problem?
Philippe Iglesias, pour4x4.com

The final terms of the bill will not be unveiled until after the French parliament's summer recess, but government sources say MPs will be asked to vote on a $1800 (1500 euros; 1000) sales tax on four wheel drives which will pay for subsidies of around $800 on smaller cars.

Such a move could meet with the approval of many residents in Paris.

"When you're a cyclist, as soon as you have to pedal up even a gentle slope the pollution takes you by the throat so I'm in favour of limiting 4x4s if it means cleaner air," one Parisian told the BBC World Service's World Business Report.

Climate of hate

But the growing tide of public opinion against the 4x4 is not shared by everyone.

Philippe Iglesias, head of the pro-off-roader pressure group pour4x4.com, and proud owner of a Land Rover Defender, says politicians and the media have whipped up a climate of hate against people like him.

Hondas HR-V 4x4 vehicle advert poster
Image of freedom, but are 4x4s clogging up our roads?

"People say the [Toyota] Rav4's, the 4x4s you see most often in the city, are mostly driven by little bourgeois ladies. So what? Where's the problem?" he says.

"It's like if one of the kids where my children go to school was dropped off every morning by helicopter. I'd be happy for him."

Germany is understood to have signalled its displeasure at the new carrot-and-stick tax proposal.

Its leading car makers, including Volkswagen and Daimler-Benz, make some of the biggest 4x4s on French roads today.

France, though one of the biggest car manufacturers in the world, does not currently make any of the larger sport utility vehicles.

As the environment ministry prepares to put its plan to France's parliament this Autumn, it will be all too aware that the European Commission's competition authorities will be watching on closely.


SEE ALSO:
Motoring through the urban jungle
25 May 04  |  Magazine
Ken brands 4x4 drivers 'idiotic'
23 May 04  |  Politics
MP calls for 4x4 countryside ban
24 Mar 04  |  Hampshire/Dorset
BMW launches its 'butch baby'
11 Sep 03  |  Business
Call for ban on 'school run' 4x4s
27 May 03  |  Politics


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