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.