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June 2012

Changes In the Laws On Names in France

1930s mother and baby

Not long ago, the name police in France loosened by just the tiniest bit their restrictive hold. In 2005, a law was passed allowing parents, whether married or no, to choose the surname of their child. There are limitations, bien sûr. This is not the Sixties; there will be no Monsieur Gloire de Paradis, no Madame Salampeacepaix, more's the pity. The surname may be only one of the following:

  • the surname of the father
  • the surname of the mother
  • the two surnames together, hyphenated, in either possible order

There are further rules:

  • Once chosen, the surname may not be changed;
  • Whatever surname is given to the first child must be given to the subsequent children of the same two parents.

We like that the law also allows the parents to choose not to choose, in which case the Officier d'état civil will give the child either:

  • the father's surname, if both parents recognise the child at the time of his or her birth registration, or
  • the surname of the one parent who does recognise the child, if that be the case.

This, too, cannot be changed, once the name is registered. As to recognition, if the parents be not married, the father must formally recognise the child to establish legal paternity.

  School words

The terminology of names is also changing with the times:

  • As of this year the use of Mademoiselle to indicate that a woman is unmarried will no longer be permitted on government forms. There will be only Madame to indicate a female as there is only Monsieur to indicate a male. (In spoken use, the terms Mademoiselle and Madame are used more as flattery or insult, indicating a woman's apparent age, something rather more difficult to legislate away.)
  • As of 2003, a surname is no longer to be termed a patronym (patronyme) but a family name (nom de famille).
  • Since at least the sixteenth century in most cases and since the beginning of the nineteenth century throughout France, women have retained their birth names after marriage on all legal documents. It is a custom but neither a requirement nor the law for a married woman to use her husband's surname. It IS the law that in all legal and administrative documentation, e.g. civil registrations and legal documents, her birth name be used. Because of this, in France, tracing female ancestors after their marriages has always been relatively simple. 

These changes to what surnames may be given a child will make research in the future somewhat more complicated. Genealogists will have to know and search under both parents' surnames, which will become more difficult with each generation, as hyphenation extends and parts of names are kept or dropped.

We are indebted to Annie Lecornec's article in La France Généalogique, no. 256, for some of the information given above.

©2012 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

A French Family's Old Documents

Fascicule 1

 We have been reading Anna Funder's very good book, Stasiland, and are thoroughly chilled by the excesses of tyranny she describes and the nit-picky, robotic enslavement of people via dozens of little documents that a certain rigid type of mind seems to worship. In France as well as in Germany, lives have been thoroughly documented by bureaucrats for a few generations. Is it too much? Does it matter? We sit uncomfortably on the fence. As a genealogist, we are quite pleased when we come across an old document, and study its every detail; yet as an individual in the modern world, we detest that same documentation for it strips us of privacy and of the comfort of anonymity. But here, we are the genealogist, so on to personal documents.

These pages are from a mobilsation card for a Jean Faustin of Périgueux (click on each image to see a larger version). Such cards were part of a man's military papers and, as military service was compulsory for many years, there are many of these cards in existence.

Fascicule 2 small

Fascicule 3 small

Fascicule 4 small

Fascicule 5 small

It shows his date and place of birth, his profession, his parents' names. For the voyeur in us all, there is the tickle of reading his physical description: a bit under five foot two, with a pointy nose.

Every French family has a kitchen drawer or an old box under the bed with dozens of such documents. Identity cards, passports, military cards, old ration tickets, driving permits, cards for the health service, cards for school, cards for retirement. Somehow, when a relative dies, the documents get tossed in the family heap. It can be a rotting mess, eroded with glue and old crumbs, but if such a heap has survived in the papers of your French ancestors, consider yourself fortunate. 

We know of no site that explains and shows them all, but many individuals in France have put photos of their own family's documents online. They can be used as a learning tool, after a fashion. A particularly good one is geneanneogie's page of vieux papiers. The dealer website,, has a section of old documents with good images and some description.

Have a look.


©2012 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Why You Cannot Always Trust a Document

Country Femme Fatale small

We research, we beat the keyboard, we travel far and wide to trace our ancestors. Finally, we find the documents that prove, absolutely prove, without doubt, our lineage, and who our ancestors were. Proof? Certainty? In truth, they are very elusive.

Jokes about postmen and paternity aside, there are many times when we simply cannot know, even if the documents seem to say that we do. Documentary evidence simply does not reveal human weakness or heroism or canniness or, as in the tale we are about to tell, rather untoward expedience.

Some years ago, a lady we shall call Paulette and her husband, whom we shall call Antoine, lived peaceably in southern France. Antoine was a farmer. Paulette was a cook in the local school. They had four children, all still in school, and Paulette doted on the youngest, a boy. To earn a bit more (in order to spoil the boy, neighbours whispered) Paulette took on extra work. She began to clean house for an elderly gentleman of wealth, the local grandee, whom we shall call Robert.

Paulette was a woman of thunderous energy and did a fine job of housecleaning and elderly care. Robert was appreciative. Robert was so appreciative that he told Paulette that he wished to give her his money and land. Sadly, he could not. He had adult children who, though they never visited him or cared for him, would complain if he gave away their inheritance. Paulette wanted to help Robert in his desire, so she and Antoine came up with a plan. When they told it to Robert, he was thrilled and agreed.

Paulette and Antoine divorced. Paulette and Robert married. Paulette and Antoine continued to live in their home with their four children. Robert moved in and transferred his property to his wife. He also adopted her youngest boy. He rewrote his will, leaving the maximum amount allowed to his wife and new son. The only fly in the ointment, for Paulette and Antoine we suppose, is that Robert, twenty-five years later, is hale and hearty at the age of ninety-seven. The children have long since grown up and left this remarkable ménage. Antoine is not well; he has a bad heart. Paulette herself has battled some of the diseases and disabilities of age and -- some say -- leans more on Robert for care now than he once leaned on her. 

What will the documents show? There will be a marriage registration for Paulette and Antoine. There will be the  birth registrations of their children, one of which will show Robert as the father. There will also be a divorce and the registration for Paulette's remarriage to Robert. One day, there will be -- heaven knows in what order -- death registrations for Antoine, Paulette and the robust Robert; and there will be a will of Robert's. There may even be a law suit at the instigation of Robert's other children. A genealogist reading these documents years later would assume a much different story from the odd reality, and might never discover that Robert was not the father of Paulette's son.

For all our research, how little we truly know.

©2012 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Privacy, Archives and Empty Attics

Vide Grenier

It was inevitable that the exponential growth in the popularity of genealogy would clash with concerns for the protection of privacy. As more and more people dig around in archives and online resources for finding dead and living relatives, there will be more and more people complaining that they do not appreciate having so much about them and their living relatives exposed to such research.

In the United States, the current battle in this war is over the Social Security Death Index. It is much used by genealogists, while others fear that it is also much used by identity thieves. There are those in Congress who want it and other indices to be no longer available to the public. The clash is also visible in the way some online genealogy services deal with privacy concerns. and Rootsweb, for instance, are quite sympathetic to individuals' complaints about privacy violations and will remove offending materials. The DAR and the man who runs it, Stephen Nordholt, on the other hand, sink to the level of the shabbiest online information brokers, putting online and selling copies of every membership application and refusing to remove any, including those about living individuals, no matter how urgent and serious the request.

In France, the government body, CNIL, has been addressing the privacy concerns involving the internet generally, and public archives about individuals specifically. Their recent explanation of their decision on internet availability of images of documents held in public archives has been seen as quite restrictive and professional genealogists, especially those who hunt heirs, are very, very upset.

Essentially, CNIL have imposed a ban on most personal information being put on the net  -- or made public in any other way -- before it is 120 years old. This affects all of the various archives that contain and have websites with images of actes d'état civil. Exceptions have been made for death registrations, which may be put online much earlier (and this has enabled the Service Historique de la Défense to continue its Mémoire des Hommes website). The blog of Guillaume de Morant has an excellent little chart showing the waiting period for each type of document. This regulation means that the websites of the individual archives no longer bear the responsibility of trying to police illegal publication of their images. (Though most still will do so as they object to publication of any their images without their having given written permission first, which is why so few are seen on this blog.)

The CNIL announcement goes on to address the question of indexing the data that is in the documents. Here, it is much more restrictive. Essentially, it will not be possible to index any recent civil registrations. Death registrations must be at least seventy-five years old before they can be indexed; marriage registrations must be one hundred years old; birth registrations must be 120 years old. (This may be another reason for's departure from France.)

While we applaud the efforts to protect privacy, we have found it frustrating to be unable to give any examples of some of the documents we have described. We are a firm believer in the educational usefulness of being able to see what is discussed.

Les Vide-Greniers Come Into Play

A vide-grenier is the same as a garage sale, a yard sale, a car boot sale, etc. Literally, the term means "empty attic". The month of May in France has many holidays and (usually) lots of sunshine, perfect for vide-greniers, of which every little village seems to have one. We have whiled away quite a few of the past weekends toodling to vide greniers. We have not been looking just for old garden furniture. Oh, no, we have been working for you, Dear Readers.

We have found that vide-greniers include not only the likes of such things as seen in the photo above; they include family photo albums, post cards, and documents, which we have bought and will continue to buy. We are accumulating a small trove of different types of documents that we will be able to exhibit legally here on the blog for you, with explanation. 

We begin with our very next post!

©2012 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy