A Brief History of (French) Time

Comtoise 2
What time is it really?

Apologies to Stephen Hawking. This has nothing to do with black holes etc, or not directly. The clocks going forward last night prompted me to think about how the standardisation of time started. In doing some research, I found that time has been as much an elastic commodity on earth as Einstein reckoned it was elsewhere in the universe.

In French country areas people used to live largely by the sun, even after the invention of clocks. They got up and went to bed with the sun. Their day was regulated to some extent by the church bell but mainly by the light. What the time was in Paris or Nice had very little impact on their daily lives. It was the coming of the railways in France, as in England, that started the move towards the standardisation of time.

Railway Time

Cloaks were originally regulated according to solar time, which differed according to where the place was on the geographical longitude. But the use of local solar time became increasingly inefficient and disruptive as communications improved.

In Britain, ‘railway time’ was introduced in the 1840s to synchronise local clocks with railway timetables. Some towns apparently refused to comply and their public clocks showed a slightly different time from the clock at the station. It was not until 1880 that the government legislated to introduce a single standard time and a national time zone based on Greenwich Mean Time (GMT).

In 1891, France adopted Paris Mean Time as its standard national time. Clocks inside railway stations and train timetables were set five minutes late to prevent passengers missing their trains. In 1911, Paris Mean Time was altered by 9 minutes 21 seconds to synchronise with Greenwich Mean Time. It was still called Paris Mean Time, which avoided having to use the word “Greenwich”.

Daylight Saving Time

During World War I, several European countries adopted Daylight Saving Time (DST), which put the clocks forward one hour. Rural areas of France largely abandoned it by 1920, although it was still current in Paris and other large cities. In 1923, the French government officially adopted GMT in the winter and GMT+1 hour between the last Saturday of March and the first Saturday of October. This period was extended in 1939 as Europe geared up for war.

France during the Occupation

After the invasion in May 1940, German time (GMT+1 in winter and GMT+2 in summer) was introduced as the German army advanced across France. I came across an interesting article by Yvonne Poulle, entitled ‘La France à l’heure Allemande’ (France on German time). According to her researches, there was no official decree at that point; the occupying army simply arranged the time change with the local French authorities in place and it was confirmed in the local press.

For a while, the Occupied and Unoccupied Zones were an hour apart: Paris was an hour ahead of Vichy. The difficulties this produced were particularly evident on the railways. And in fact SNCF (the French railways authority) suggested in 1940 that the two zones should observe the same time. After a lot of complicated toing and froing, with which I won’t bore you here, the Zone Libre was required to change to GMT+2 from 9th March 1942. This was reinforced when the Germans occupied the Zone Libre in November 1942.

As a gesture of defiance, some French patriots kept to the ‘old’ French time, two hours behind German summertime. Jean Anglade’s novel, La Soupe à la Fourchette, is set in rural Cantal during World War II. Denis Rouffiat, one of the main characters, insists on keeping the family clock on ‘old’ French time, i.e. two hours behind official time, as an act of resistance. The same clock receives a stray bullet, whizzing through the window in June 1944 during a skirmish between Germans and resistance.

After the liberation, France returned to GMT+1 all year round with no seasonal change. It would not adopt Daylight Saving Time again until the 1970s oil crisis.

European Standardisation

By the 1980s, European countries were changing to DST at different times, causing huge confusion. The EU therefore introduced a standardised DST period in 1996, from the last Sunday of March to the last Sunday of October.

Nowadays, France is on Central European Time (Central European Summer Time in summer) while Britain is always an hour behind on Greenwich Mean Time (or Western European Time). This is despite the fact that much of France is east of the 0° Meridian and in theory ought to be on the same time as Britain. I’m rather glad it’s not since it stays lighter in the evening all year round.

Complicated, eh? And I’ve had to over-simplify some of the above. Time is not as easy as we thought – and it hasn’t always been the same.

P.S. Two signs of spring – the cuckoo arrived today, having arrived with our friends 15 kilometres south of us yesterday. And we are planning our first barbecue this evening. This is a week in advance of last year, which was itself early. But it’s too dry and we are desperate for rain.

Copyright © 2012 Life on La Lune, all rights reserved


    • Thank you! Yes, it’s very likely that, as of the March clock change next year, France will stay with either summertime or wintertime all year round. I don’t think it’s been decided which will prevail. For people who work/schoolchildren, who have to get up early, of course wintertime is preferable. I would personally prefer to stick with summertime!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. My sister works in the UK with horses (outdoors mainly) and doesn’t like the clock change either as she’s tired for a week trying to catch up with herself.
    Does anyone remember when we used to have a month that we had the same time as the UK? They changed end of Sep and Europe at end of Oct. Personally I would prefer no clock change at all, like Steph, but don’t suppose it will happen!


    • We moved here a year after they had synchronised clock-changing time. Before that, the fact that different countries changed at different times caused no end of confusion. It would be easier if there were no clock change, but for me the change to summer time is always a positive time of year.


  2. Let me complicate time just a bit more. The US went to daylight savings time two weeks ago making it even more puzzling to decide when to call my family. Let’s see…is it 9 hrs. difference now to California or 8 or 10??? Glad to hear the cuckoo is back; I can hardly wait to hear one again here. We don’t have them in the US so they are a real treat for me. Enjoy the sunshine!!


    • It’s a headache, isn’t it. I can’t get my head around the time changes. I didn’t realise the US doesn’t have cuckoos. Well, they ought to be arriving chez vous any moment.


  3. Gosh, it sounds terribly complicated. Thank goodness we know where we are now, although this morning, we didn’t realise the clocks had gone forward and I had to speed up preparing lunch for visitors. I only found out when they rang to say they were on their way. Must keep up with the time.


  4. I have always hated the fact that the french are one hour ahead of the UK. Now this may sound weird, but because I live in Northern France I am close enough to the UK to know that they are waking in daylight. I find that the winters seem darker for longer and I detest waking in the dark for such a large proportion of the time. I also hate the change of clocks in march since having begun to enjoy waking in the light, we get plunged back for a couple of weeks into semi darkness again. I must be suffering from SAD to be having such a profound aversion to darkness!
    However I would like to raise a cheer for this particular 25 March – I have spent the whole afternoon basking in tropical temperatures on the side of our local outdoor lido – surely I can now plant out my geraniums without fear of another frost….. or can I?


    • It’s very interesting to see how different people react. Personally, I don’t mind it being darker in the morning because I rejoice in the fact that it’s lighter in the evenings. This evening we had a lovely barbecue and then we sat outside until about 20h15, when it started to get a bit chilly. But I can see that if you have to get to work or get children off to school, it must make it so much more difficult.

      Don’t plant out your geraniums yet. We never do ours before mid-April and we are further south than you. April and even early May can be frosty.


      • Thanks for that advice – I lost all my Primavere because of the snow. I would hate to loose my Geraniums though I notice the apartment opposite has planted out all hers – I shall keep an eye on how hers are doing!


        • If they’re in a town on a south-facing balcony, for example, you can probably get away with it at the end of March. However, I know from bitter experience that early April is often colder than March with biting winds – not something geraniums enjoy.


  5. Thank you, Vanessa, for all this fascinating information. I wondered if there was EU policy behind the time changes these days. I wish we stayed on the same time all year round. I have no particular preference which one – GMT+1 or GMT+2. I just HATE the changing! I honestly don’t think it’s necessary. Grumble, grumble!


    • It doesn’t suit everyone. French farmers didn’t like DST when it was introduced because it made it darker in the mornings. I must say, I rather look forward to the summer one since it means it’s so much lighter in the evening but I am less happy to put the clocks back at the end of October!


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