France Civil Registration
Civil registers are the vital records made by the government. Records of births, marriages, and deaths are commonly referred to as "vital records" because they refer to critical events in a person's life. French civil registration offices are excellent sources for accurate information on names, dates, and places of births, marriages, and deaths in their area. In addition, civil registration may include divorce records.
Civil records are crucial for research in France. Civil authorities began registering births, marriages, and deaths in 1792. After this date, all individuals who lived in France are recorded. Because these records cover all the population, are indexed, are easily accessible, provide more information than church records, and include persons of all denominations, they are the most important source for genealogical research in France. Other significant genealogical sources, such as church records, are not easily available after 1792, not complete, not necessarily accurate and not considered as reliable a source as the civil registers. For many families, civil registers are often the only valuable source of information after 1792.
For baptism, death, and marriage records before 1792, see the "Church Records" section.
General Historical Background
The earliest vital records in France were made by the churches at the request of the French kings. In 1792, the revolutionary government made civil officers responsible for keeping vital records. Civil registration was accomplished by requiring the people to report all births, marriages, and deaths to a civil registration office [bureau de l'état civil], usually at the town hall [mairie]. Civil registration was well received, and nearly all of the people were recorded.
Baptism, marriage, and death record duplicates that were made by the churches before 1792 are usually in the departmental archives, or sometimes in the town's civil registration office. After civil registration began in 1792, the clergy continued to keep their own parish registers separate from civil registers.
Regional Differences in Record Keeping
Savoie and Nice. France controlled the Duchy of Savoie and the County [comté] of Nice from 1792 to 1814 and permanently after 1860. Use the church records of Savoie or Nice for the periods when they belonged to Sardinia and civil registration was suspended. These church records were given to the local community [commune] in 1906, but the ten-year indexes are often missing before 1882. French civil registers were usually made for towns in Savoie from 1792 to 1814 or 1815, and starting again in 1863.
The Family History Library Catalog shows many civil registers in Nice between 1815 and 1859. These were originally church records but are cataloged as civil registers because they were turned over to the French civil authorities for safekeeping.
Corse. Genoa (now part of Italy) sold the island of Corse to France in 1768. Some family surnames were not fixed until end of the eighteenth century. The records were kept in Latin or Italian, and starting in 1820 they are kept in French. The Family History Library has not yet obtained any microfilm of civil registration from Corse.
Overseas. In French territory overseas, parish registers were kept in duplicate until 1776 and then in triplicate in Africa and Asia. The three copies continued after 1792. For help locating these records, see chapter 23 of Guide des recherches sur l'histoire des familles.
Paris. A fire in 1871 destroyed almost all the civil registers of Paris before the year 1860. The government has reconstructed about 2.7 million of the estimated eight million burned records. For a guide to the Paris records see:
Demeulenaère-Douyère, Christiane. Guide des sources de l'état civil parisien (Guide to civil registration sources of Paris). Paris, France: s.n., 19--. (FHL book 944.361 V27d; film 1,573,092item 15.)
The Family History Library has a part of the Andriveau collection (started before the fire) which includes some baptisms, marriages, and deaths in Paris from about 1800 to 1860. This collection is not complete, some film is out of focus, and circulation to family history centers in Europe is prohibited.
Consulates. After 1792 the consuls, like the town registrars in France, had the responsibility of recording the births, marriages, and deaths of French citizens in foreign nations, when it was requested. These records are kept in duplicate. One copy is sent each year to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Information Recorded in Civil Registers
The information recorded in civil registration records varied over time. The later records usually give more complete information than the earlier ones.
The most important civil records for genealogical research are birth, marriage, and death registers. References to other documents are often noted in the text or marginal entry of the civil records. This practice alerts researchers to look for documents such as acknowledgment of paternity, subsequent marriage of the parents of an illegitimate child, name rectification, or any court judgment regarding the person, or the name and date of the notary who wrote the marriage contract.
Most French civil registers are written in French, with the exception of areas under a foreign influence. In Alsace-Lorraine, some civil registers are in German. In Nice and Corse, some are in Italian.
Birth records usually give the child's name, sex, date and place of birth, and the name of the parents, including the mother's maiden surname. The records may provide additional details, such as the age of the parents, occupation of the father, or place of origin of the parents.
Births were usually registered within two or three days of the child's birth, usually by the father, but sometimes by a relative or friend, especially if the father was absent. Parents of a single mother are usually listed for more complete identification of the mother. Corrections to a birth record, marriage of the parents of an illegitimate child, or rectifications of any kind may have been added as marginal notes.
Children who died very young [présenté mort or présenté sans vie] are not stillborn but probably died shortly after birth. Some of the children who died at birth may be recorded only in the death records. The baptismal given name in church records may differ from the given name in civil registers. Search both when they are available.
Civil register births usually have yearly indexes in addition to the ten-year indexes.
You may also find birth information in the "Family civil registration booklets" described in the following marriage section.
After 1792 marriages had to be performed by civil authorities before the couple could be married by the church. The church wedding usually took place where the bride resided and was recorded there in the church records. But the civil marriage could be recorded in another town.
The early civil marriage records include more information than the corresponding church records. When they are available, search both the civil registration and church records of marriage.
A law passed in 1798 (year VI of the French Republic) required citizens to be married at the canton seat [chef- lieu de canton] instead of the local town [commune]. This law was abolished in 1800 (year VIII) when couples were again allowed to marry in their local town. For this reason, marriages for the years VII and VIII (1798-1800) are usually missing from town records. A note in town records may suggest you search for marriages at the canton seat.
When you cannot find a marriage record, search records of intent to marry.
Records of Intent to Marry. You may find records that show a couple's "intent to marry" in addition to or instead of the records of the actual marriage. Various records may have been created that show a couple's intent to marry.
Marriage banns [publications] were made twice in the weeks before a couple planned to marry. The couple was required to announce their intention to give other community members the opportunity to raise any objections to the marriage. Some registers of marriage banns before 1927 have been preserved. Banns are made in the places of origin of both the bride and the groom and usually show the town where the marriage took place or the residence of the bride. Search these if you do not know where a marriage took place.
Marriage supplements [pièces annexes or pièces justificatives] were occasionally filed by the bride and groom in support of their application to be married. They may include birth record extracts of the bride and groom, death certificates of the parents, divorce decree of a previous union, certificates of residence, a marriage contract, legitimation of children, parent's consent, or military status of the groom, and sometimes documentation on earlier generations may be included. In France these marriage supplements were originally kept by the clerk of the court [Greffe du tribunal], but a few may have been given to the departmental archives.
Contracts [contracts de mariage] are documents created for the protection of property. These are notarial documents. Sometimes the marriage certificate will show the name and town of the notary who wrote the contract and the date it was written. But these contracts are not usually on microfilm at the Family History Library and are not always deposited at the departmental archives. They may have remained in the office of the notary's successors.
Marriage Records. You may find the following records that document the actual marriage.
Certificates [certificats]. You can obtain a marriage certificate from the last hundred years from the registrar's office [bureau de l'état civil]at the town hall [mairie]. A copy of a marriage certificate will be sent by mail to direct descendants only.
Marriage register [registre des actes de mariage]. Civil officials recorded the marriages they performed, usually in a prescribed paragraph format, bound in a book and kept in the registrar's office.
The civil marriage registers give many details, such as the birth date and birthplace of the bride and groom and their parents' names, including mother's maiden surname. If the parents have died, their death date and death place are recorded. More recent civil marriage records may even include the same information for the grand-parents. There are usually four witnesses listed, with their age, occupation, residence, and relationship. Civil marriage records contain the complete birth information of the couple's children who are born out of wedlock. If a marriage contract was made, the date, the name of the notary, and the town where this contract was written may be included. Civil marriage records may also mention the date of the banns [publications].
Family civil registration booklets [livrets de famille]. After 1877 the civil registrar gave a booklet to each couple he married. This booklet includes an extract of the marriage record and references to the marriage contract. The couple was responsible for taking the booklet to the registrar as each of their children was born. The registrar would update the booklet with the child's birth information and return the booklet to the parents. The registrar also recorded deaths in this booklet. Families keep possession of their family civil registration booklets and often hand them down to their children.
Divorce Records [Divorces]
Divorce was permitted in France from 1792 to 1816 and after 1884. A few divorce records may be found with the marriages in the early period. A marginal note referring to the divorce was noted on the couple's birth certificates in more recent years.
The Family History Library has a few of the earlier divorce records in its collection of French civil registration. You can also obtain information from divorce records by contacting the civil registration office [bureau de l'état civil] at the town hall [mairie] where the divorce took place.
Death records are especially helpful because they may provide important information on a person's birth, spouse, parents, age, and birthplace. Civil death records often exist for individuals for whom there are no birth or marriage records. Deaths were usually registered within a day or two of the death in the town or city where the person died.
Early death records may give only the name, date, and place of death. But most of them will also give the age, birthplace, and parents' names (including mother's maiden surname), and whether or not the parents are also deceased. The death certificates usually have two informants, at least one of them closely related. Information in death records may be subject to error because the informants may have lacked complete information.
Children who died before the declaration of birth was made may be found only in the death records.
The death of a soldier who died away from home is usually noted in the death records of the town where the soldier was born. Such an entry may be listed in the records a year or two after the soldier died.
Locating Civil Registration Records
Two civil registers were created for each event. One register is kept at the registrar's office [bureau de l'état civil], usually in the town hall [mairie]. The other register is made available to the public at the departmental archive after it is 100 years old.
You must determine the town where your ancestor lived before you can find civil registration records. Your ancestor may have lived in a village that belonged to a nearby larger town. In large cities there may be many civil registration districts. Each district has its own registrar. You may need to use gazetteers and other geographic references to identify the place your ancestor lived and the civil registration office that served it. See the "Gazetteers" section.
In addition, it helps to know the approximate year in which the birth, marriage, divorce, or death occurred. Records less than 100 years old are confidential. This means the registrar will issue a birth or marriage certificate less than 100 years old only to direct relatives.
Indexes to Civil Registration Records
In each town's civil registration office [bureau de l'état civil] births, marriages, and deaths were written in the registers as they occurred and thus are arranged chronologically. Yearly indexes and ten-year indexes to civil registers can help you find your ancestor more easily.
Almost every registrar created a yearly index of his register. Indexes are usually bound with each year's register. It is often more practical to use the town's yearly indexes, which have fewer names to search, than to use ten-year indexes.
Ten-year indexes [tables décennales] were kept in a separate register. You can sometimes find the ten-year indexes for several towns in the same district [arrondissement] or canton [canton] bound together in the same volume. A ten-year index is especially useful when you are not certain of the year of an event.
Yearly indexes and ten-year indexes have several characteristics in common. The registrar usually indexed births, marriages, and deaths separately. The indexes are alphabetical by surname. They usually list the given name(s), document number, and date of the civil register entry. In marriage indexes, the groom's name is usually in alphabetical order, with the bride's maiden surname listed after the groom. In some indexes, only the first letter of the surname is in alphabetical order.
Records at the Family History Library
The Family History Library has microfilmed civil registration records from about half the departments of France to the 1870s, and some departments up to 1890. Most of these records are from the northern, eastern, and southern areas of France. Fewer are from central France.
The Family History Library has no nationwide collections or special indexes of French civil registration records. Yearly indexes and ten-year indexes are available for almost every individual town. Ten-year indexes for several towns in a canton are often bound together in the same volume on the same microfilm.
The Family History Library has civil registration from towns in many departments of France. However, if a record has been destroyed, was never kept, was not available in the archives at the time of microfilming, was not microfilmed, or is confidential, the Family History Library does not have a copy. You may use the records at the library for your family research, but the library does not issue or certify certificates for living or deceased individuals.
The specific holdings of the Family History Library are listed in the Family History Library Catalog. To find civil registration records in the Family History Library, search in the Place search of the library's catalog under:
FRANCE - CIVIL REGISTRATION
FRANCE, [DEPARTMENT] - CIVIL REGISTRATION
FRANCE, [DEPARTMENT], [TOWN] - CIVIL REGISTRATION
The library's collection continues to grow and its catalog is updated annually. Don't give up if records are not available yet. Check the Family History Library Catalog every year for the records you need.
Locating Records Not at the Family History Library
France has no single, nationwide repository of civil registration records. Birth, marriage, divorce, and death records may be found by contacting or visiting local registrars' offices or departmental archives in France. To protect the privacy of living persons, records of the most recent 100 years are confidential and have restrictions on their use and access.
Local registrars' offices [bureau de l'état civil] will usually mail one or two birth, marriage, or death certificates at no charge. However, they are busy and they may not respond to requests for more than two certificates at a time. If the records are less than 100 years old, they are confidential and will be sent only to direct descendants. Records more than 100 years old are more accessible at the departmental archives.
The clerk of the court [greffe du tribunal] keeps a duplicate of the most recent hundred years of civil registration records. Then the records are sent to the departmental archives. Clerks' copies are not normally available for research.
Departmental archives [archives départementales] will only send replies to general questions about their holdings. They will not do research in their records for you. You may visit the archives to search the civil registers over 100 years old. You can also hire a researcher to examine archive records for you.
You may also find archive inventories (see the "Archives and Libraries" section) that describe the record-keeping systems and available civil registration records in France. They may not be up-to-date. These and other guides are found in the Place search of the Family History Library Catalog under:
FRANCE - ARCHIVES AND LIBRARIES - INVENTORIES, REGISTERS, CATALOGS
FRANCE, [DEPARTMENT] - ARCHIVES AND LIBRARIES - INVENTORIES, REGISTERS, CATALOGS
The "French Search Strategies" section of this outline and the Family History Library's French Letter-Writing Guide give details about how to write to town registrars and departmental archives in France for genealogical information.
If the reply does not have the information you request, try to get help from the local genealogical society.
French Archives Online
For the past few years France has been digitizing its archives (both Civil registers and Parish registers) and making them available online from a variety of Departmental links.
Some Departments provide the record images free of charge whereas some ask for payment. There is no determining factor enabling the researcher to determine where the archives will be available for free or not. Only by visiting the sites will you know.
This is a work in progress and not all Departements are online yet, nor complete.
For example, in Sarthe: http://www.archives.sarthe.com/RegistreNumerise.asp
Here you find a listing of all the towns, villages in that Departement that have been digitized, so you can choose what time frame you need to look at. After that it's like cranking the wheel of a microfilm reader. Use the indexes as mentioned earlier in this article. Tools are found on the page to zoom in and out, rotate, save and/or print the original document.
Tips (Astuces) are given at the top of the page or you can Return to the main list of digitized documents by clicking on "Retour à l'Inventaire" where you can choose other records to search through.
To find out what is available, check this website for a map:
Clicking on the map will redirect you to an alphabetical list of all the Departements that are participating in this digitization project.
In some cases, notarial records are included as part of the project.
Effective use of civil registers includes the following strategies, in addition to the general strategies in the "French Search Strategies" section:
- Search for the relative or ancestor you selected in step 2. When you find his birth record, search for the birth records of his brothers and sisters.
- Search for the death records of his parents, which will tell you where the mother came from and where the marriage probably took place.
- Search for marriage records of all the children. Marriage records will tell you if the parents have died and where and when they died.
- If you cannot find the person you want in the regular marriage records, search the marriage banns [publications].
- Then, search for the marriage record of the parents. The marriage record will give you birth dates, birthplaces, and parents' names.
- Then repeat the process for both the father and the mother.
- Search the death registers for all family members. These are indexed and will take you back in the parish register period, giving you ages and localities of birth.
- Search the civil registers completely before starting to search in the parish registers.