Now Here’s a Surprise! Time Keeping in France has Not Been ‘Legal’ For 35 Years!
Time, you may be surprised to learn, has not been legal in France for some 35 years, even though the Paris-based International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM) is keeping time legal for everyone else.
The discrepancy, raised recently in parliament by French deputy Bernard Gérard, was highlighted by Gregory Pons, French publisher of Business Watches & Jewellery, in an article in Atlantico.
The MPs parliamentary question to government on 27 January 2015 asking for an … err …time-table on re-establishing legal time in France, is shown in the video clip below:
The MP makes clear that Universal Time Coordinated (UTC) as coordinated and transmitted by the BIPM in Paris, is now the accepted standard for legal time in most member countries.
The deputy pointed out that a defined “legal time” affects time-keeping for air traffic, nuclear plants, railways and a new project to deliver secure, certified time for the global computer industry across an increasingly interconnected space that includes interconnected innate objects.
“Digital time today is a critical element of cybersecurity and connected objects, a new law defining legal time in France is critical for ensuring electronic transactions are sound and not subject to legal challenges,” he told parliament.
Responding for the government Carole Delga, Secretary of State for the Economy said the discrepancy had occurred following the decision by member countries of the BIPM to make UTC the basis for civil legal time in most countries. “This means the BIPM is responsible for determining legal time in France and it is the agency which is drafting amended legislation.” She promised this would reach the cabinet “shortly”.
Her response of course avoided the clear request in the deputy’s timely question — a precise timetable setting out the timing of the new legal time Bill, but by then perhaps she had run out of (debating) time?
For his part Gregory Pons writes that the failure to reinstate legal time in France is an “incredible” state of affairs and a barrier in an increasingly digital and interconnected world.
“France abandoned its legal time in 1979, somewhere during the business of implementing European directives on transition to summer time, a regulation that made the Decrees of 9 August 1978 and 17 October 1979 obsolete,” he wrote.
“Thus for 35 years the Republic has no longer had ‘official time’ which makes France an exception among major industrial countries. This notion of an official French time is indispensable for securing all national computer networks, for air traffic control, for nuclear power plant safety, and for secure bank transactions that need to be timed to the millisecond.
“The administrative waiver of any statutorily defined national time is even more absurd given that since 1972 France has been tasked with an international mission of creating and disseminating global time — Universal Time Coordinated (UTC) — developed through a network of atomic clocks, and rendering obsolete references to GMT (Greenwich Mean Time), an outdated vision of time that is based on the Earth’s rotation. To avoid hurting British pride, it is France that defines the UTC through its Paris Observatory, but it is the UK that disseminates the international signal through the Greenwich Observatory”.
“This highly specialized expertise in calibrating international legal time means France has very advanced laboratories dealing with scientific time-frequency. Thus it is even more paradoxical that the country no longer has a statutory civil law basis setting out ‘standard time’ .
“It’s not our fault, says the government via the Secretary of State (in the video clip above): International timekeeping was reorganized; the Fifteenth Conference of Weights and Measures changed the rules; the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM) defined the new standard for international atomic time; the Paris Observatory is responsible for development and dissemination of French legal time. In short, it’s not our fault, someone else is responsible…”.
Despite these protestations, he writes, “a draft decree on the matter has been in hand since July 11, 2013, its just taking its time to become law.”
By way of background: “A law decreed in 1891 in France defined the legal time everywhere in France as being solar time measured in Paris … the French did not adopt the Greenwich Meridian until 1911 (all clocks in France then had to be adjusted by 9 mins 21s)”, according to Data Processing in Precise Time and Frequency Applications, a book by M. Desaintfuscien available on Google.
If all this time-keeping appears confusing, rest assured it is, nothing too straightforward about the time scales for proper time-keeping apparently, as one might judge from this timely explanation in Wikipedia: “TAI as a time scale is a weighted average of the time kept by over 400 atomic clocks (420 as of April 2013) in over 50 national laboratories worldwide. The clocks are compared using GPS signals and two-way satellite time and frequency transfer. Due to the averaging it is far more stable than any clock would be alone. The majority of the clocks are caesium clocks; the definition of the SI second is written in terms of caesium. The participating institutions each broadcast, in real time, a frequency signal with timecodes, which is their estimate of TAI. Time codes are usually published in the form of UTC, which differs from TAI by a well-known integer number of seconds. These time scales are denoted in the form UTC(NPL) in the UTC form, where NPL in this case identifies the National Physical Laboratory, UK. The TAI form may be denoted TAI(NPL). The latter is not to be confused with TA(NPL), which denotes an independent atomic time scale, not synchronised to TAI or to anything else. The International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM, France), combines these measurements to retrospectively calculate the weighted average that forms the most stable time scale possible”.
Helpful expanations are also on hand at the BIPM website: “International Atomic Time: A practical scale of time for world-wide use has two essential elements: a realization of the unit of time and a continuous temporal reference. The reference used is International Atomic Time (TAI), a time scale calculated at the BIPM using data from some two hundred atomic clocks in over fifty national laboratories.The long-term stability of TAI is assured by a judicious way of weighting the participating clocks. The scale unit of TAI is kept as close as possible to the SI second by using data from those national laboratories which maintain the best primary caesium standards.TAI is a uniform and stable scale which does not, therefore, keep in step with the slightly irregular rotation of the Earth. For public and practical purposes it is necessary to have a scale that, in the long term, does. Such a scale is Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), which is identical with TAI except that from time to time a leap second is added to ensure that, when averaged over a year, the Sun crosses the Greenwich meridian at noon UTC to within 0.9 s. The dates of application of the leap second are decided by the International Earth Rotation Service (IERS).”
So now you know. While you may be happy with your mobile phone’s more or less accurate depiction of time; in the wider world if its not “legal time”, it may not be time at all.
Story: Ken Pottinger
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