Just a matter of time


Fast forwarding the calendar is a tempting thought on long winter evenings everywhere. Florac, a small town in the Cevennes, is no exception. But down here in Florac we look forward to mid-February with particular passion.


It's nothing to do with St Valentine, nor late-arriving groundhogs, nor will it yet be spring. It's just that, for months, the sun has been disappearing soon after lunch, dipping below the crest of the limestone plateau that towers above the east side of the town. In mid-February, at last, it will stay high enough in the sky to clear the Rocher de Rochefort on the edge of the Causse Mejean. Shining down into the valley, its warming rays will signal that the darkest days are over, and the patrons of the bars along the Esplanade can brave the outside tables for their afternoon coffee.


Unless it's raining. Or freezing cold. And it still gets dark before aperitif time. For an early evening pastis in the sun there are still six weeks more to wait, until the clocks go forward – on the last Sunday in March, when the whole of Europe switches to summer time.


This notion of changing the clocks is one of the many things for which Benjamin Franklin is widely credited - or blamed. Diehard American opponents of big government will sometimes add that the idea came to him while he was living in the dreaded France. Being a big fan of early rising, Franklin took issue with the posh people of pre-revolutionary Paris for getting up so late, staying up half the night, and then complaining about the price of candles. He seems to have slipped into satirical mode when suggesting remedies, including the insistent ringing of every church bell in the city at dawn “and if that is not sufficient, let cannon be fired in every street to wake the sluggards”.


There is no clear evidence, though, that Franklin really suggested meddling with the clocks. Indeed, another century and more would pass before anyone drafted a serious scheme for daylight saving time. The first such proposal, elaborated in New Zealand in 1895, wasn't taken up straight away, but during World War I several countries adopted it for the benefit of an extra hour of light in the summer evenings. France was somewhat unusual in carrying on with a summer time-switch (with local exceptions) throughout the interwar period. Then, with the French defeat in 1940, came a more fundamental change. The occupying Germans simply ordered the adoption of their own time zone; “l'heure allemande”, or German time.


Paris had already been displaced once before, in 1911, as the reference point for French standard time. On that occasion “Paris mean time”, adopted nationwide just 20 years before, was realigned with the time in use in Britain. In the same way that towns all round the country, spurred on by such exigencies as uniform railway timetables, had converged on the use of the capital's solar time instead of their own, this change had been presented as a practical adjustment to emerging international standards. It nevertheless required some swallowing of French pride, reinforcing the harsh truth that the “Greenwich meridian” had won out over the “Paris meridian” as the starting point for the world's longitudinal measurements. Since Paris lies only 2.35 degrees east of Greenwhich, falling in line in 1911 did not require too dramatic a time-shift. Nevertheless, typically, if rather forlornly, the French officially insisted for a while on calling it “Paris mean time delayed 9 minutes and 21 seconds” rather than Greenwich Mean Time (GMT, now known as UTC).


Berlin time was a whole hour different, but in 1940 the occupied French had no choice but to do what they were told and put their clocks forward. Unoccupied “Vichy France” followed suit in 1942. Since the Germans too practised daylight saving in summer, France was effectively on double daylight saving in summer until the liberation.


Although France then joined other countries in giving up the summer switch, its immediate postwar plan to revert to a more “natural” timezone was never implemented. France stayed with Central European Time (UTC +1) instead. Then, in 1975, it reintroduced daylight saving summer time. Ostensibly this was done to reduce the consumption of oil – the 20th century equivalent of Franklin's candles. It also made for long light summer evenings. Even in winter, the sun sets in Paris a full 50 minutes and 39 seconds later, by the clock, than strict longitude would dictate.

In the far west of Brittany the discrepancy is half an hour greater. In Florac, admittedly, it's five minutes less. Still, there's really not much excuse around here, in mere timekeeping terms, for whingeing about long dark evenings. But, just for now, will the sun hurry up and clear that Rocher de Rochfort, please?

January 2014