Mean Time

France Is Retarded By Nine Minutes And Twenty-One Seconds

“Time has a different meaning here. It certainly doesn’t mean money”, said one US executive doing business in France. So, why are the French so unpunctual?

In 2004, the British and French governments commemorated the Entente Cordiale, the old alliance by which the French agreed to recognise Britain’s claim to some Sudanese desert in return, as it turned out, for the British saving them during the First World War. The centrepiece of the celebrations was a state dinner hosted at Windsor Castle by the Queen for President Jacques Chirac. Every detail was painstakingly planned and timed. The Waterloo Room, in which the meal was to be served, was even renamed the “The Music Room” to soothe French sensibilities.

The evening arrived, the Queen was standing outside the gates, the band played but – no president. It began to rain. After twenty minutes hanging about, the Queen went back inside for a quick G&T, deciding to let Chirac greet himself. He turned up thirty minutes behind schedule. (Revenge was swift. After dinner came a two-hour, full-cast performance of Les Misérables, a searing portrait of how depressing it was to be French in the nineteenth century).

Anyone who has ever sat in a Montparnasse bistro watching the waiter ring his girlfriend, gel his hair, watch football on the big screen TV and only then get the café filtre you ordered twenty-five minutes ago will not be surprised that Samuel Beckett wrote “Waiting for Godot” in France. The French take their own sweet time.

If you can’t trust the French to do anything on time, their tardiness is something others have always counted on. With war approaching in 1913, German diplomat Prinz von Donnersmarck told the French ambassador: “I am convinced that you will be beaten and for this reason. In spite of the brilliant qualities which I recognise are possessed by the French and which I admire, you are not sufficiently punctual... In the coming war that nation will be victorious whose servants from the top of the ladder to the bottom will do their duty with absolute exactitude, however important or small it may be.”

Even today, foreigners are exasperated by the French refusal to “do their duty with absolute exactitude”. Polly Platt, author of the useful French or Foe (3rd Edition 2004), a manual on how not to go mad while working with the French, tells the tale of an American executive arriving for a job interview with two French managers of BNP bank:

“One of them received me on the dot of the appointed meeting, and the other kept both of us waiting for forty minutes. He didn’t say he was sorry - and didn’t give an excuse. And the one who was on time didn’t seem at all bothered. It was as if this was perfectly normal.”

Another of Platt’s interviewees works at the French telecommunications company, Alcatel: “I’m meeting this French colleague for lunch – he finally arrives, half an hour late and doesn’t even say he’s sorry. He is wrong to waste my time like that!”

Their stories are far from unusual. Foreigners tend to be astonished by the casual French attitude, not to say plain rudeness, in the way they deal with other people’s time. The shop assistant who won’t finish her phone call to take your order. The taxi driver who must finish reading his paper before he can drive you anywhere. The help line that can’t take your call because all the staff are having lunch. You might experience any of this anywhere in the world. In France such experiences are the rule not the exception. 

The French approach to time is blamed by some outside observers on “the Latin temperament”. This fuzzy generalisation falls apart beside the punctuality (and courtesy) of the Belgians and that of the ethnic French who make up 20% of the most clock-ridden nation on earth, the Swiss. 

If the racial theory is bunk then what about cultural differences? In his books, The Silent Language (1959) and The Hidden Dimension (1969), anthropologist Edward T. Hall argues that national cultures really divide into two types when it comes to time: “monochronic” and “polychronic”.

Some cultures, mostly protestant, northern and heavily industrialised, are “monochronic”. In the US, the UK, Holland, Germany, Switzerland, Canada and Scandinavia, time is an absolute. Being late or abusing someone else’s time is taboo. Other cultures, says Hall, are “polychronic” and the value given to time is more elastic and indulgent. Most of the world is “polychronic” apparently, taking in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Mediterraneans, Latin Americans and, no surprise, the French.

Then again, the French train system is famous for punctuality (so it should be with a €10 billion annual subsidy from the French taxpayer) and while their shops sometimes open on time, they all close absolutely on the dot for the two-hour lunch break. Those mealtimes are important. Harriet Welty, an expert on French “etiquette”, points out in her book French Toast (2001) that while it is actually rude for a French couple to turn up less than half an hour late to dinner with friends, if they turn up to lunch more than two minutes late, they will apologise profusely and with apparent sincerity. 

So it seems that the French can keep time if they want to. They just don’t want to. Almost every book and source recognises this fact without daring to say it – or say why. Very simply, in a country as clannish and competitive as France, time – and its use or misuse – is an excellent way of enforcing their superiority over the stranger, the subordinate, the “other guy”. In other words, you.

Polly Platt, who has to live and work in France, diplomatically sums it up: “The French are punctual whenever necessary... Most have an inner alarm about when to be on time. They also know when it doesn’t matter. In business, it also makes a difference if they are demandeur (soliciting someone for something) or demandé (being solicited)... It’s part of their liberté, like smoking or letting their dogs mess up the sidewalk.”


Working Late: Proudfoot Consulting, analysing international firms found Japanese CEOs were most punctual – 60% said they were hardly ever late. French CEOs were worst with just 36 % saying they were usually punctual when it comes to meetings.

Clash of the Chronics: The classic example of a “monochronic” versus “polychronic” clash is the battle of Waterloo (1815). Napoleon chose not to attack at dawn because the ground was wet and he wanted his breakfast. Instead, he waited until noon. This was fine with the Duke of Wellington because he had arranged to meet up with the Prussians in the afternoon. The British, facing devastating barrages, might have broken except General Blucher, with true German punctuality, turned up right on time. The two hours Boney whiled away eating devilled kidneys at the breakfast table and lecturing his marshals on the importance of timing lost him the battle, the crown and France.

The French Are Retarded: The French may not keep time but when someone else has it, they want it bad. At an international conference in 1884, twenty-five countries met to fix a standard world meridian. Despite furious French lobbying for Paris, the Royal Observatory at Greenwich in the UK won the prize to be the world’s Longitude 0°. Only San Domingo voted against with abstentions from France and Brazil. Until 1978, all French maps and official documents by law had to express the time not as “Greenwich Mean Time” but as "Paris Mean Time retarded by 9 mins 21 secs". Even today, the French campaign to have Paris reclassified as the starting point for time has not quite died. In the run-up to the 2000 Millennium, it was proposed to plant a line of poplars all the way across France along the line of a theoretical “Paris Mean Time” which would be visible from space so that aliens, at least, would recognise whose time was most important on earth.


This is a web preview of the "50 Reasons to Hate the French" app. Many features only work on your mobile device. If you like what you see, we hope you will consider buying. Get the App