How to Research Your French Ancestry

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If you are one of those people who have avoided delving into your French ancestry due to fears that the research would be too difficult, then wait no more! France is a country with excellent genealogical records, and it is very likely that you will be able to trace your French roots back several generations once you understand how and where the records are kept.

Where are the Records?

To appreciate the French record-keeping system, you must first become familiar with its system of territorial administration. Prior to the French Revolution, France was divided into provinces, now known as regions. Then, in 1789, the French revolutionary government reorganized France into new territorial divisions called départements. There are 100 departments in France - 96 within the borders of France, and 4 overseas (Guadeloupe, Guyana, Martinique, and Réunion). Each of these departments has its own archives that is separate from those of the national government. Most French records of genealogical value are kept at these departmental archives, so it is important to know the department in which your ancestor lived. Genealogical records are also kept at local town halls (mairie). Large towns and cities, such as Paris, are often further divided into arondissements - each with its own town hall and archives.

Where to Start?

The best genealogical resource to start off your French family tree is the registres d'état-civil (records of civil registration), which mostly date from 1792. These records of birth, marriage, and death (naissances, mariages, décès) are held in registries at the La Mairie (town hall/mayor's office) where the event took place. After 100 years a duplicate of these records is transferred to the Archives Départementales. This country-wide system of record keeping allows for all information on a person to be collected in one place, as the registers include wide page margins for additional information to be added at the time of later events. Therefore, a birth record will often include a notation of the individual's marriage or death, including the location where the said event took place.

The local mairie and the archives both also maintain duplicates of the decennial tables (starting in 1793). A decennial table is basically a ten-year alphabetical index to births, marriages, and deaths which have been registered by the Mairie. These tables give the day of registration of the event, which is not necessarily the same date that the event took place.

Civil registers are the most important genealogical resource in France. Civil authorities began registering births, deaths, and marriages in France in 1792. Some communities were slow at putting this into motion, but soon after 1792 all individuals who lived in France were recorded. Because these records cover the entire population, are easily accessible and indexed, and cover people of all denominations, they are crucial to French genealogy research.

Records of civil registration are typically held in registries in local town halls (mairie). Copies of these registries are deposited each year with the local magistrate's court and then, when they are 100 years old, are placed in the archives for the town's Department. Due to privacy regulations, only records over 100 years old may be consulted by the public. It is possible to obtain access to the more recent records, but you will generally be required to prove, through the use of birth certificates, your direct descent from the person in question.

Birth, death, and marriage records in France are full of wonderful genealogical information, though this information varies by time period. The later records usually provide more complete information than the earlier ones. Most civil registers are written in French, though this doesn't present a great difficulty to non-French speaking researchers as the format is basically the same for most records. All you need to do is learn a few basic French words (i.e. naissance=birth) and you can read pretty much any French civil register. This French Genealogical Word List includes many of the common genealogy terms in English, along with their French equivalents.

One more bonus of French civil records, is that birth records often include what is known as "margin entries." References to other documents on an individual (name changes, court judgments, etc.) are often noted in the margins of the page containing the original birth registration. From 1897, these margin entries will also often include marriages. You'll also find divorces from 1939, deaths from 1945, and legal separations from 1958.

Births (Naissances)

Births were usually registered within two or three days of a child's birth, usually by the father. These records will typically provide the place, date and time of registration; the date and place of birth; the child's surname and forenames, the parents' names (with mother's maiden name), and the names, ages, and professions of two witnesses. If the mother was single, her parents were often listed as well. Depending upon the time period and locality, the records may also provide additional details such as the age of the parents, the father's occupation, the birthplace of the parents, and the relationship of the witnesses to the child (if any).

Marriages (Mariages)

After 1792, marriages had to be performed by civil authorities before couples could be married in the church. While church ceremonies were usually held in the town where the bride resided, civil registration of the marriage may have taken place elsewhere (such as the groom's place of residence). The civil marriage registers give many details, such as date and place (mairie) of the marriage, full names of the bride and groom, the names of their parents (including mother's maiden surname), the date and place of death for a deceased parent, the addresses and occupations of the bride and groom, details of any previous marriages, and the names, addresses, and occupations of at least two witnesses. There will also usually be an acknowledgement of any children born before the marriage.

Deaths (Décès)

Deaths were usually registered within a day or two in the town or city where the person died. These records can be especially useful for people born and/or married after 1792, because they may be the only existing records for these individuals. The very early death records often only include the full name of the deceased and the date and place of death. Most death records will also usually include the age and birthplace of the deceased as well as the parents' names (including mother's maiden surname) and whether or not the parents are also deceased. Death records will also usually include the names, ages, occupations, and residences of two witnesses. Later death records provide the marital status of the deceased, the name of the spouse, and whether the spouse is still alive. Women are usually listed under their maiden name, so you will want to search under both their married name and their maiden name to increase your chances of locating the record.

Before you begin your search for a civil record in France, you will need some basic information - the name of the person, the place where the event took place (town/village), and the date of the event. In large cities, such as Paris or Lyon, you will also need to know the Arrondissement (district) where the event took place. If you are not certain of the year of the event, you will have to conduct a search in the tables décennales (ten-year indexes). These indexes usually index births, marriage, and deaths separately, and are alphabetical by surname. From these indexes you can obtain the given name(s), document number, and date of the civil register entry.

French Genealogy Records Online

A large number of French departmental archives have digitized many of their older records and made them available online - generally at no cost for access. Quite a few have their birth, marriage and death records (actes d'etat civil) online, or at least the decennial indexes. Generally you should expect to find digital images of the original books, but no searchable database or index. This is no more work than viewing the same records on microfilm, however, and you can search from the comfort of home! Explore this list of Online French Genealogy Records for links, or check the website of the Archives Departmentales which holds the records for your ancestor's town. Do not expect to find records less than 100 years online, however.

Some genealogical societies and other organizations have published online indexes, transcriptions and abstracts taken from French civil registers. Subscription-based access to transcribed pre-1903 actes d'etat civil from a variety of genealogical societies and organizations is available through the French site at Actes de naissance, de mariage et de décès. At this site you can search by surname across all departments and results generally provide enough information that you can determine whether a particular record is the one you seek before you pay to view the full record.

From the Family History Library

One of the best sources for civil records for researchers living outside of France is the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. They have microfilmed civil registration records from about half of the departments in France up to 1870, and some departments up to 1890. You will generally find nothing microfilmed from the 1900s due to the 100 year privacy law. The Family History Library also has microfilm copies of the decennial indexes for almost every town in France. To determine if the Family History Library has microfilmed the registers for your town or village, just search for the town/village in the online Family History Library Catalog. If the microfilms exist, you can borrow them for a nominal fee and have them sent to your local Family History center (available in all 50 U.S. states and in countries around the world) for viewing.

At the Local Mairie

If the Family History Library doesn't have the records you seek, then you'll have to obtain civil record copies from the local registrars' office (bureau de l'état civil) for your ancestor's town. This office, usually located in the town hall (mairie) will usually mail one or two birth, marriage, or death certificates at no charge. They are very busy, however, and are under no obligation to respond to your request. To help ensure a response, please request no more than two certificates at one time and include as much information as possible. It is also a good idea to include a donation for their time and expense. See How to Request French Genealogy Records by Mail for more information.

The local registrar's office is basically your only resource if you are searching for records which are less than 100 years old. These records are confidential and will only be sent to direct descendants. To support such cases you will need to provide birth certificates for yourself and each of the ancestors above you in a direct line to the individual for which you are requesting the record. It is also recommended that you provide a simple family tree diagram showing your relationship to the individual, which will help the registrar in checking that you have provided all of the necessary supporting documents.

If you plan to visit the Mairie in person, then call or write in advance to establish that they have the registers that you are looking for and to confirm their hours of operation. Be sure to bring along at least two forms of photo ID, including your passport if you live outside of France. If you will be searching for records of less than 100 years, be sure to bring along all necessary supporting documentation as described above.

Parish registers, or church records, in France are an extemely valuable resource for genealogy, espeically prior to 1792 when civil registration went into effect.

What are Parish Registers?

The Catholic religion was the state religion of France until 1787, with the exception of the period of 'Tolerance of Protestantism' from 1592-1685. The Catholic parish registers (Registres Paroissiaux or Registres de Catholicit) were the only method of recording births, deaths, and marriages in France prior to the introduction of state registration in September 1792. Parish registers date back to as early as 1334, though the majority of surviving records date from the mid-1600's. These early records were kept in French and sometimes in Latin. They also include not only baptisms, marriages, and burials, but also confirmations and banns.

The information recorded in parish registers varied over time. Most church records will, at a minimum, include the names of the people involved, the date of the event, and sometimes the names of the parents. Later records include more details such as ages, occupations, and witnesses.

Where to Find French Parish Registers

The majority of church records prior to 1792 are held by the Archives Départementales, though a few small parish churches still retain these old registers. Libraries in larger towns and cities may hold duplicate copies of these archives. Even some town halls hold collections of parish registers. Many of the old parishes have closed, and their records have been combined with those of a nearby church. Several small towns/villages did not have their own church, and their records will usually be found in a parish of a nearby town. A village may have even belonged to different parishes during different periods of time. If you can't find your ancestors in the church where you think they should be, then make sure to check neighboring parishes.

Most departmental archives will not do research in parish registers for you, though they will respond to written inquiries regarding the whereabouts of the parish registers of a specific locality. In most cases, you will have to visit the archives in person or hire a professional researcher to obtain the records for you. The Family History Library also has Catholic Church records on microfilm for over 60% of the departments in France. Some deparmental archives, such as Yvelines, have digitized their parish registers and put them online. See Online French Genealogy Records.

Parish records from 1793 are held by the parish, with a copy in the Diocesan archives. These records will usually not contain as much information as the civil records of the time, but are still an important source of genealogical information. Most parish priests will respond to written requests for record copies if provided with full details of the names, dates, and type of event. Sometimes these records will be in the form of photocopies, though often the information will only be transcribed to save wear and tear on the precious documents. Many churches will require donations of about 50-100 francs ($7-15), so include this in your letter for best results.

While civil and parish registers provide the largest body of records for French ancestral research, there are other sources which can provide details on your past.

Census Records

Censuses were taken every five years in France beginning in 1836, and contain the names (first and surname) of all members living in the household with their dates and places of birth (or their ages), nationality and professions. Two exceptions to the five year rule include the 1871 census which was actually taken in 1872, and the 1916 census which was skipped due to the First World War. Some communities also have an earlier census for 1817. Census records in France actually date back to 1772 but prior to 1836 usually only noted numbers of people per household, though sometimes they would include the head of household as well.

Census records in France are not often used for genealogical research because they are not indexed making it difficult to locate a name in them. They work well for smaller towns and villages, but locating a city-dwelling family in a census without a street address can be very time consuming. When available, however, census records can provide a number of helpful clues about French families.

French census records are located in departmental archives, a few of which have made them available online in digital format (see Online French Genealogy Records). Some census records have also been microfilmed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormon church) and are available through your Local Family History center. Voting lists from 1848 (women are not listed until 1945) may also contain useful information such as names, addresses, occupations and places of birth.


In France, tombstones with legible inscriptions can be found from as early as the 18th century. Cemetery management is considered a public concern, so most French cemeteries are well maintained. France also has laws regulating the reuse of graves after a set time period. In most cases the grave is leased for a given period - usually up to 100 years - and then it is available for reuse.

Cemetery records in France are usually kept at the local town hall and may include the name and age of the deceased, the birth date, death date, and place of residence. The cemetery keeper may also have records with detailed information and even relationships. Please contact the keeper for any local cemetery before taking pictures, as it is illegal to photograph French tombstones without permission.

Military Records

An important source of information for men who served in the French armed services is the military records held by the Army and Navy Historical Services in Vincennes, France. Records survive from as early as the 17th century and may include information on a man's wife, children, date of marriage, names and addresses for next of kin, a physical description of the man, and details of his service. These military records are kept confidential for 120 years from the date of a soldier's birth and, therefore, are rarely used in French genealogical research. Archivists in Vincennes will occasionally answer written requests, but you must include the exact name of the person, time period, rank, and regiment or ship. Most young men in France were required to register for military service, and these conscription records can also provide valuable genealogical information. These records are located at the departmental archives and are not indexed.

Notarial Records

Notarial records are very important sources of genealogical information in France. These are documents prepared by notaries which can include such records as marriage settlements, wills, inventories, guardianship agreements, and property transfers (other land and court records are held in the National Archives (Archives nationales), mairies, or Departmental archives. They include some of the oldest available records in France, with some dating all the way back to the 1300s. Most French notarial records are not indexed, which can make research in them difficult. The majority of these records are located in the departmental archives arranged by the name of the notary and his town of residence. It is almost impossible to research these records without visiting the archives in person, or hiring a professional researcher to do so for you.

Jewish and Protestant Records

Early Protestant and Jewish records in France can be a little harder to find than most. Many Protestants fled from France in the 16th and 17th centuries to escape religious persecution which also discouraged the keeping of registers. Some Protestant registers may be found at local churches, town halls, the Departmental Archives, or the Protestant Historical Society in Paris.

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Powell, Kimberly. "How to Research Your French Ancestry." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Powell, Kimberly. (2020, August 27). How to Research Your French Ancestry. Retrieved from Powell, Kimberly. "How to Research Your French Ancestry." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).