Your ancestors in France

Your ancestors in France


The French Republic has its capital in Paris, its largest city. This might be the first city that springs to mind when you think of France, with the Eiffel Tower as its most iconic structure? Other urban areas with large populations include Lyon, Marseille, Toulouse, Bordeaux, Lille and Nice. Wanting to trace your French ancestors? This blog will help you get started.

See for my 5 steps to discovering your ancestors.



The Gauls (think of Asterix?), a collection of Celtic tribes, inhabited the area in the Iron Age. In 51 BC Rome annexed the area, developing a Gallo-Roman culture laying the foundation of the French language. In 476 the arrival of the Germanic Franks heralded the formation of Kingdom of Francia. The Treaty of Verdun in 843 partitioned the empire, with West Francia becoming the Kingdom of France in 987.

By the end of the reign of King Philip Augustus in 1223 France was the most powerful state in Europe. Following this French monarchs embroiled themselves in a series of conflicts with England from the mid 14th century, lasting 100 years. Disputes with Spain and the Holy Roman Empire followed this. However, French culture flourished during these times and a global colonial empire was established.

During the second half of the 16th century France was dominated by religious civil war between the Catholic and Protestant (Huguenot) faiths. The seven years’ war (1756–1763) and the American war of independence (1775–1783) left France heavily indebted by the end of the 18th century. The French revolution in 1789 saw the collapse of the absolute monarchy. One of the earliest republics emerged as a result.

Napoleon Bonaparte enabled France to reach its political and military height in the early 19th century, subjugating much of continental Europe in the process. The first French empire was established. The collapse of this empire led to decline, culminating in the French third republic in 1870 (during the Franco-Prussian War).

France participated in the first world war emerging victorious. It was one of the Allied powers in the second world war, coming under occupation by the Axis powers in 1940. The Fourth republic was established after its liberation in 1944. Charles de Gaulle formed the Fifth republic in 1958 which lives on to this day. Most French colonies including Algeria sort and gained independence in the 1960s.

France is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and founding member of the European Union and Eurozone. It is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).

Paris is the capital of France. Since 2016 France has been divided into 18 administrative regions, 13 in metropolitan France and 5 overseas. Regions are subdivided into 101 departments. Each department is divided into arrondissements (335 in total), in turn these arrondissements are subdivided into 2,054 cantons. 36,658 communes follow.

A survey in 2016 suggested the population of France is Christian in majority (51%), 40% had no religion, 6% were muslim, 3% other faiths with 0.5% undecided (percentages rounded up or down from actual).

Source: Wikipedia, accessed 2020



Civil Registration (birth, marriage and death) and church records are generally kept at a local level.



Birth, marriage or death (BMD) records are known as civil registration and they begin in 1792. There are no comprehensive national indexes for BMD. Every 10 years an index is compiled for BMD that have taken place during that decade in each commune. Therefore knowledge of your ancestors commune of origin is required.

If you are seeking information within the last 100 years contact should be made with the registrar’s office. This usually holds a copy of the civil registers for its commune in the town hall.

Source: Family Tree Magazine, 2018
Further information


A snapshot of a family, on one night of the year. Censuses have been taken in France by the Government, individual towns and provinces. They were taken primarily for military, taxation or identification of the poor purposes.

National census are rarely used for family history research. They haven’t been microfilmed or indexed so finding your ancestors name in them isn’t easy.

The first national census (listing names) was taken in 1772. From 1836-1936 a national census was taken every 5 years (excluding 1871, which was taken in 1872) and 1916 (skipped altogether).

Access to records may be allowed up to the last 30 years, however records less than 100 years old are supposed to be confidential.

You should search the departmental archives for census material.

Source: FamilySearch


Emigrants and Immigrants

Emigration and immigration records usually list those who are leaving (emigration) the country, or those arriving (immigration) into the country.

Lists are usually located as permissions to emigrate, passport records, border crossings and lists of prisoners deported. Few emigration records from France exist. There are some Canadian records of French immigrants into Quebec from 1632-1713.

Significant numbers of emigrants left France during the following periods:

  • 1538 – 1685: Protestants flee religious persecution in France
  • 1632 – 1713: French settle Quebec and Acadia (Canada)
  • 1722: Alsatian colonies established in the Holy Roman Empire (Austria-Hungary)
  • 1764 – 1786: Alsatians colonize Russia, Ukraine, and Banat
  • 1785: Some exiled Acadians shipped from France to Louisiana
  • 1789 – 1791: About 500,000 refugees flee the French Revolution for neighboring nations and the Americas. About half later returned
  • 1804 – 1832: Additional Alsatians emigrate to Ukraine, Bessarabia, and Banat
  • 1815 – 1817: Political turmoil after the fall of Napoleon leads to a wave of French emigration to neighboring countries and the Americas
  • 1830 – 1962: French colonize Algeria (Africa)
  • 1830s, 1840s, 1850s and 1860s: Agents go from town to town recruiting emigrants, mostly in Alsace-Lorraine. Some went to America, others to Russia
  • 1871: There is a wave of French emigrants, largely to North America.


For a more detailed breakdown of the records available and where these may be held please refer to this resource on

Source: FamilySearch


Parish Registers

Parish registers generally detail baptism, marriage and burial. They may be used as an alternative or substitute for civil registration. Pre-1792 parish registers are almost as informative as civil registration records and of course have to be used to take research back in time from 1792.

Handwriting can be difficult to decipher, but if you have tackled the English equivalents then you should be skilled enough.

Catholic churches were the first to keep records (christenings from 1563), marriage and death records in 1579.

After the French revolution parish registers became state property. Departmental archives or town registrars took on responsibility for the preservation of these. You need to know the town where your ancestor lived before 1792 to use parish registers effectively.

Source: Family Tree Magazine, 2018 and FamilySearch

Key contacts and useful websites


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  • Wikipeadia, accessed 2020
  • FamilySearch, accessed 2020
  • Family Tree Magazine, 2018
  • Photo by Geoffrey A Stemp;


Robert Parker is a Genealogist and Trainer, based in Kent. He delivers courses, guidance, talks and research services for those interested in tracing their ancestors. See for his 5 steps to discovering your ancestors. Contact Robert to discuss your requirements without obligation.

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