TRUCKING INDUSTRY WORRIES AS FRENCH FUEL TAX TO RISE

TRUCKING INDUSTRY WORRIES AS FRENCH FUEL TAX TO RISE

The French transport industry is bracing for a gasoline tax increase that will hit it at the diesel fuel pumps.

Organizations representing trucking companies say the price increase of diesel will have a negative impact on the industry at a time when it already is struggling in a highly competitive environment.France's 1996 budget is not scheduled to be unveiled until Wednesday, but ministers already have confirmed an increase of 15.7 centimes (3 cents) per liter on the price of regular and diesel fuel, which translates into a

2.75 percent increase for unleaded fuel and a 4 percent rise in the price of diesel fuel. A liter equals 0.26 gallons.

France has long maintained a lower tax rate on diesel fuel, and this encouraged the use of trucks and cars with diesel engines. French car companies are now the leading manufacturers in Europe of diesel-powered engines.

But more recently, the government has been under pressure from health experts and environmentalists to lessen the widening gap in the price of the two types of gasoline. Critics say pollution from diesel exhaust is a health hazard, and its use should not be encouraged over other fuels.

The debate also has sparked an apparent rift within the government. This week, Corinne Lepage, France's environment minister, said she favored eliminating the price differential.

On Friday, Transport Minister Bernard Pons said he was personally against the price rise. He also hinted that measures to lighten the impact on the transport sector are being studied.