Inside CARAN, every Wednesday afternoon, it is written that it is possible to visit la Bibliothèque Généalogique et d'Histoire Sociale, "a private centre of documentation and genealogy that contributes to the safeguarding of the national heritage of family history...with a catalogue of 385,000 surname studies, which has been exhaustively indexed."
We were keen to see this collection and duly presented ourselves on a Wednesday afternoon. After a complete tour round the entire entry hall in search of this vast library, we were baffled to be directed to a small glass cubicle in which two elderly gentlemen were quietly chatting. How foolhardy we were to enter!
"Ah? Yes?" greeted the more elderly of the elderly gentlemen. A thin, curled-over man, he was wearing an immaculate, crisply pressed, dark, three-piece suit and had a full head of flowing, white hair.
"This is the library?" we asked, confused at the nothingness of the space.
"We are able to request a book to be here for you next Wednesday afternoon," he explained graciously. "What do you seek?"
"Would you by any chance have a directory of eighteenth century equerries, les écuyés?"
"Oh!" he winced and groaned. "You are American? Écuyés were nothing. Nothing!" How pained and irritated he was to be confronted with what he assumed was yet another American hoping to find nobility in her ancestry. We, on our side sighed, for we have met this type of geriatric, snappily dressed fonctionnaire before. Perhaps it would not hurt to digress from genealogy to tell a bit of current French documentation practices, for they cast a light on the thinking that surely inspired past practices.
Our children were born outside of France to a French father and an American mother. At each birth, their father immediately took their birth certificates to the French embassy, which entered their names in the Livret de Famille (the family book, a required document for all French families) and issued them with French passports. As they grew, they were able to renew their passports without any problems. When we came to live in France, they required national identity cards, cartes d'identités, the main form of identity in the country. We made an appointment at the Mairie, or local Town Hall, and took all of their documents as well as new photos for the cards. We were stunned to be told that none of what we had proved that they were French and so they could not receive identity cards. This is the equivalent of being denied a Social Security number in the United States.
We were sent to a remote office in another Mairie to apply for them to receive Certificats de Nationalité Française, certificates of French nationality. Once they would have those, we could apply for their cartes d'identités. At the top of the building, in a glass cubicle very like the one at CARAN, was just such an extremely elderly gentleman, with just such an impeccable, three-piece suit, just such an hauteur, and even just as much white hair.
"How can all of these French documents not be enough to prove our children's French nationality?" we asked. We were exasperated, frazzled, frustrated.
"Ah, you see, they were born on foreign soil of a foreign mother."
"But their father is French. The embassies gave them passports. They are in the Livret de famille."
"Their father could have surrendered his French nationality when he married a foreigner."
"We do not know that."
"He will sign an oath, before a notary."
"You Americans have a very different system. You believe everyone tells the truth. We French do not. We must have proof."
He asked for more documents, the birth, marriage and death records of the past three generations of the family of children's father. When these were supplied, he asked for more documents, the school records of their father and the baptism records of his parents and grandparents. Twice a month, for nine months, he asked for ever more documents. Each visit, with gritted teeth, we sat through his lectures on American legal naiveté.
We lost all hope and faith, yet continued to find for him the randomly requested documents, gradually coming to realize that the entire process was not about French nationality but catholicité. What my elderly tormentor was trying to determine was if the children's father had come from a Catholic family and if he had renounced the Catholic faith when he married a foreigner, for it is a very rigid and completely unwritten rule -- one that would be as vigourously denied as it is vigourously applied -- that to be French is to be Catholic.
Finally, long after we had developed a somewhat zen approach to the entire effort, our erudite and elegant, old inquisitor looked at our latest stack of documents that he had requested, retracted his talons and said: "I think you have tried hard enough." We held our breath in disbelief and, we admit, indignation, as he signed the papers that approved the nationality of our children.
We had tried hard enough. There is no law or rule book, nor has there ever been, of how hard is hard enough, but every French bureaucrat ensures that every supplicant citizen is made to try hard enough, and non-Catholics can expect to have to try doubly "hard enough". Bear that in mind when searching French records and, should you happen upon a wonderfully thick file about one of your ancestors, pity the poor soul who was made to provide its contents.
©2009 Anne Morddel