PARIS – Vehicle sales in France tumbled 13.9% from prior-year in 2012 to 1.9 million units. It was the fifth consecutive year of declining sales and the worst result since 1997.

This year doesn’t look any better. The government has raised taxes on cars that are less fuel-efficient, mainly large models with big engines. If that doesn’t slow down deliveries of the German premium brands, whose sales improved in 2012, the tax hike at least may help government budgets.

December, like November, was a disappointing month, with car sales down 14.6% and deliveries of light-commercial vehicles slipping 21.6%. The combined light-vehicle market dropped 15.8% for the month and 13.3% on the year.

French auto makers underperformed in the domestic market in 2012, with PSA Peugeot Citroen and Renault deliveries falling 18.0% and 19.8%, respectively, from year-ago. Also seeing declines were Ford, 18.3%; Fiat, 17.9%; and Opel, 22.4%.

Entry- and upper-level brands fared better, with higher year-over-year volumes reported by Skoda, Lancia, Chevrolet, Toyota, Hyundai, Kia Mercedes-Benz, Audi and BMW.

Francis Roudier, spokesman for the French CCFA organization of auto makers, says demand is flagging because the eurozone economic crisis is hitting the middle class the hardest. Yet the French market includes only 6% luxury cars, while the average in Germany is 20% and in all of Europe is 13%.

For 2013, he says, “The situation for the automobile industry on the continent will remain difficult.”