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France

Eye on France: The times they are a changin' - in two weeks

media What time is it? Europe has still to decide. REUTERS/Charles Platiau/File Photo

The French had until last weekend to respond to a consultation launched by parliament’s European affairs department, asking whether they would prefer to put the clocks backwards and forwards twice every year as at present, or stay permanently on so-called summertime.

Fifty-nine percent of those who responded chose permanent summer.

Don’t worry. The clocks will still go forward by one hour on the night of 23 March. And the consultation, which attracted well over two million responses, is not going to change anything directly. Despite having registered the most enormous reaction ever . . . parliamentary consultations typically get a few thousand replies . . . this was nothing more than its name implies, a consultation.

Eighty percent of the 2,103,999 people who contributed said they wanted to put a stop to the twice-yearly obligation to change the setting on the cooker timer, the washing machine and the cat feeder. Most phones and computers do it automatically. So does your telly.

Now, we just have to wait for the rest of Europe to decide. After which the continental parliament will, by 2021 at the earliest, issue general recommendations. And then each of the 27 member governments will make their own choice.

So, if the Schengen zone survives to 2021, you won’t need a passport to cross the border into a neighbouring EU country. But you might need to readjust your watch. Unless, of course, the 27 governments, the post-Brexit Brits, the Swiss, Norwegian and other non-alligned nations can, for once, agree to march to the beat of the same drum. Or the ticking of the same clock.

France leads the continental charge

The European Commission has already run its own consultation. That was last year and it collected a miserable 4.6 million votes. From 28 countries!

Fifty-six percent of Europeans wanted permanent summertime; 36 percent (notably in Finland, Denmark and the Netherlands) would have been happy with non-stop winter.

The point of the old system with was to try to align the hours of peak human activity with the hours of natural daylight, thus saving energy.

Permanent summertime is not without its detractors. Under the no-change system, the western French region of Brittany, for example, won’t see the sun rise before 10AM in the middle of December.

Critics also warn of an impact on human sleep patterns, and an increased risk of road accidents.

Myths and mysteries of these changing times

Le Figaro has examined the various myths and mysteries associated with the current system.

It is true that changing from winter- to summer-time does save energy, but only at the level of about 0.5 percent of annual consumption, and with huge variations between countries. Bizarrely, the southern countries report the most consistent and significant savings, perhaps something to do with the way they use their air conditioners.

Doctors accept that our internal clocks are disturbed by the bi-annual change, but they can’t decide how serious that fact is. Several studies have pointed to an increase in the incidence of strokes and heart attacks in the days immediately following the change to summertime. But the causal link remains to be established.

Some people do take a long time to re-adjust, especially at the start of summer, but we’re talking discomfort rather than health problems, and the link remains to be clinically established. Some people are just not on the same page as the rest of us, whatever the clock is doing!

Long summer evenings are undoubtedly good for human health, encouraging open-air activities and the synthesis of vitamin D. No one seems to have studied the impact of the potential increase in alcohol consumption as we lurch into the later sunset with another bottle of rosé, or bucket of gin and tonic.

But that’s another story.

What about the impact on cows and criminals?

Cows and farmers apparently don’t like the change, but there are no useful statistics. Grain farmers say they would benefit from the extra hour in the evening, especially at harvest-time. Which is generally at the end of summer lads, when you get that extra hour anyway. Farmers! Never happy.

The statistics for road accidents are contradictory. People who get less sleep just after the change to summertime might be more likely to cause accidents. But the impact is negligible, and more than compensated by the accidents which don’t happen in the long evenings, when there tend to be more people on the roads.

Since this material is from right-wing paper Le Figaro, no report on anything would be complete without a look at criminality. Since crime tends to be a nighttime phenomenon, longer evenings might drive potential criminals into the pubs while they were waiting for dark. And they might then be too tired to proceed with the plan to pinch our priceless jewels, paintings and hard cash.

One study in the United States shows a 7 percent increase in shoplifting in the weeks immediately following the launch of summertime. But that could simply be to supply the extra rosé and G&T mentioned above.

Le Figaro says it is impossible to generalize. And then ends with a ringing generalization: “From whatever angle we approach this problem,” pontificates the conservative paper, “we arrive at the same conclusion. The effects of the change of hour, whether positive or negative, are invariably tiny, impossible to summarise, and frequently different from one country to the next.”

If you thought Brexit, budgetary rigour and the single currency were difficult, just wait until Europe tries to squeeze everybody into the same timezone.

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