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The Bulletin des lois

On Nationality



 We have been remiss. Some time back, we received a question from loyal reader Monsieur B. about citizenship and nationality. He wrote that his ancestor:



"was born in the province of Torino, Italy. The family moved to Marseille in about 1869 when he was 20 then to Toulon a few years later. He emigrated in 1876 and became an American citizen in the 1880s, renouncing his allegiance to France, not Italy.....Did European countries, or at least France, have laws regarding who was and who wasn't a citizen in the mid to late 19th century?"

This is a most timely question, for the press these days is full of pontifications about what it means to be French, what is Frenchness, asking "is there a French identity crisis?" and so on. The French bureaucrats continue to grant citizenship according to the bizarre and highly personal  criteria we described in our post Trying Hard Enough and Time/CNN recently printed an article on others who had experienced tribulations similar to our own. Just in case one is inclined to think that it is only the French who make the acquisition of citizenship a visit to the world of Kafka, read this lengthy summary of the intricacies of acquiring US citizenship for a child born outside of the US and with an American parent. (Here, we must point out that the existence of even these intricacies is due entirely to the work of one exceedingly determined lady, Phyllis Michaux who fought to change the law denying such children US citizenship. We, and our children, are grateful.)

Monsieur B.'s question however, and our interest here, is how to understand French citizenship for genealogical purposes. His ancestor almost certainly would have been French and not a citizen of Torino (or of Italy, which did not exist yet). It is confusing to Americans, as is the American concept of nationality to most Europeans. Long ago (our apologies, for we can no longer find the quote) we read a succinct clarification of the difference in the column of William Pfaff that used to appear in the International Herald Tribune. He wrote , essentially, that in the New World countries, nationality is a matter of political borders, while in Europe, nationality is a matter of race.

New World countries, such as the United States or Brazil, automatically grant citizenship to anyone born within their borders. European countries do not. To be born in France or Britain, for example, is not enough, on its own, to make one a citizen of that country. In Europe, one must prove that one is of what is tacitly considered to be the race of that country to acquire citizenship. Hence, in France, the demand for the documents of the parents and grandparents to prove Frenchness (and hence, obviously, the identity crisis.)

By the same token, a European does not lose citizenship merely for having been born outside the  country. Thus, the ancestor of Monsieur B. , if one parent was French, would have been unquestionably French and, unless the other parent were from Torino,  would have had no claim to citizenship of that province or, later, of Italy. We encountered an extreme form of this racial concept of citizenship when living in Istanbul. There, we were introduced to a family that considered itself French. They were descended from French merchants who had gone to the Ottoman Empire more than 200 years ago. Few in the family spoke French and many had never been to France. Yet, every generation had retained French nationality and French passports.

In genealogical research of French ancestors, bear all of this in mind:

  • birth in France does not make a person French
  • French parents make a person French
  • nationality can, of course be taken, and there are good records in the Bulletin des lois of those who did take nationality
  • birth outside of France does not automatically deprive a person of French nationality; as seen above it can continue for generations, so it is worth checking the birth registrations at French consulates in the Archives Diplomatiques if there is reason to think an ancestor's parents would have preserved the French nationality
  • finally, many, many French ancestors could have had dual or even triple nationality. 

All clear?

©2010 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy