For many of us, when we conjure up thoughts of European-based oil and gas companies, we get about as far as Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE:RDS-A) (NYSE:RDS-B) and BP (NYSE:BP). We'd clearly be better off going another step and including France's largest company by market cap, oil major Total (NYSE:TOT).

Like the 50-1 shot that astoundingly won the Kentucky Derby going away on Saturday, Total easily topped the field in the most recent quarter, a tough one for big and small energy companies alike. Not that Total was ever a major underdog within the oil group. I've been intrigued by the company and its performance for eons. But like the astounding gelding in Louisville, it pretty much made a mockery of the race for the quarter ending in March.

ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM) had previously led the group with "only" a 58% dip in its year-over-year earnings -- thanks, of course, to a nearly two-thirds fall in crude prices. ConocoPhillips (NYSE:COP) gave up 80%. Total, however, managed to keep its slide to a relatively modest 36%. Total's figure was based on earnings of 2.29 billion euro, ($3.05 billion), versus 3.6 billion euro last year. And given plans for increased production, any upward movement in crude prices could drive it distinctly higher.

Indeed, Total's relatively modest dip was based in part on a 4.3% fall in hydrocarbon production, compared to the first quarter in 2008. But if you listen closely to the company, that particular tide should turn in the coming months. For instance, the huge Akpo field in the deep waters offshore Nigeria just started production and "will contribute significantly to production for the rest of the year," according to Total CEO Christophe de Margerie. Beyond that, the deepwater Tahiti field, operated in the Gulf of Mexico by Chevron (NYSE:CVX), began producing as recently as Tuesday. And there are other startups planned for the coming months in Yemen, Angola, and Qatar.

Beyond all this, there are a couple of metrics you should know about. Total trades at an 8.68 forward P/E and will start you off with a 5.00% forward dividend yield. For Exxon, those numbers are 11.76 and 2.50%, while Chevron carries a 9.45 forward P/E and a 4.00% forward yield. All things considered, if you're into energy -- and you should be -- it looks to me like Total is worth some additional Foolish study time.

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Total SA is a Motley Fool Income Investor recommendation. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days.

Fool contributor David Lee Smith doesn't have financial interests in any of the companies mentioned above. He does welcome your questions or comments. The Fool has a disclosure policy.