Census RecordsCensuses 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.
CemeteriesIn 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 RecordsAn 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 RecordsNotarial 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 RecordsEarly 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.
Kimberly Powell, About.com's Genealogy Guide since 2000, is a professional genealogist and the author of "Everything Family Tree, 2nd Edition" (2006) and "The Everything Guide to Online Genealogy" (2011). Click here for more information on Kimberly Powell, or to let her know what you thought of this article.