France’s Wrinkle in Time di Sam Borden
Rueil-Malmaison, France — MY family has a problem with time.
It isn’t so much an issue with making time or finding time or being on time. And it certainly doesn’t have anything to do with killing time, flying time or having a good time.
No, our family’s problem with time is simpler: We think it’s wrong.
Specifically, we think French time is incorrect for all but a few weeks each year. The two exceptions — those weeks when the time is right, you might say — come in late March and in late October. What happens then? Well, in the spring the United States begins daylight saving time several weeks before most of Europe, while in the autumn — this week, in fact — most of Europe ends daylight saving time a week before the United States. Admittedly, some might find this revelation irrelevant, but let me assure you: For airline pilots, trans-Atlantic travelers and the significant number of American expatriates in Europe, these glorious weeks are God’s time.
Consider: For those of us living in France while, say, our mothers remain in New York, a five-hour time difference instead of six means a phone call made on the way to school pickup syncs perfectly with Grandma’s morning tea instead of perfectly with Grandma’s morning shower (right idea, wrong time). Yes, we are still roughly 3,599 miles from New Rochelle, N.Y., but for a few days the distance feels much smaller.
Another plus, according to a friend, is that weeks like these are a gift for live-streaming the late N.F.L. game that he said usually starts at 2:30 a.m. — way too late to justify to his wife —but now kicks off just 30 minutes past 1, which is, I’m told, much more palatable.
“It’s like a time warp!” he exclaimed.
There is actually a group in France dedicated to the cause. The French Association Against Double Summer Time is made up of about 500 members who — in their spare time, naturally — do what they can to let people know that it’s time for a change.
“This is an important issue,” Eléonore Gabarain, the president of the organization, explained in a recent conversation. “It’s a matter of health.”
Ms. Gabarain and her colleagues point out that, geographically, France is clearly in the wrong time zone. Based on its location, it ought to be on Greenwich Mean Time (like England) instead of Central European Time (like Poland). That fact explains why it has been pitch-black outside until 8 a.m. here this month — Freezing Time, as my daughter Hannah calls it — and also why we basically have to hang thick black vinyl sheets on our curtain rods in July if we want the children to go to sleep before 11 p.m.
“Studies have shown that France has a high rate of adults using sleeping pills,” Ms. Gabarain said. “Changing the time would help with that because it wouldn’t be so bright.” She also noted studies showing that later sunrises make driving conditions more dangerous during morning commutes.
The French were actually on Greenwich Mean Time (now called Coordinated Universal Time) as recently as 1940. There were a series of time-zone switches during World War II as Germany occupied part of France, but after the war was over, France was supposed to return to Greenwich Mean Time in 1945. Alas, for reasons that are not altogether clear, the French government canceled that decision at the last moment and has remained on Central European Time ever since.
In 1975, it instituted daylight saving time as well, meaning that for half the year France is actually two hours ahead of what it geographically should be (leading to the term “double summer time,” as used by Ms. Gabarain and others).
Not surprisingly, Ms. Gabarain and her minutemen and -women have had a devil of a time getting anyone to take them seriously. She knows her group is not in a position of power, and it certainly doesn’t have enough money to truly lobby in front of the people who make decisions.
Yet time, of course, waits for no one. As the number of immigrants and expats increases in France, proper alignment merits strong consideration. Other countries, such as Russia and Portugal, have adjusted their time protocols, and there is a growing movement in the United States to eliminate daylight saving time because the age-old reasons for its existence (energy savings among them) simply don’t add up.
Meanwhile, Ms. Gabarain said her organization has sent letters and reports to a variety of French government departments but has had little response.
“They say they are studying it,” she said, adding, “I guess they are taking their time.”