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French Nationality Law Through the Years

To be French

One can pen an encyclopaedia on the subject of what it means to be French but for those researching their ancestors, it is the law that matters. The laws on French nationality determined whether or not a person would have been allowed to present him or her self to the world as truly French and the law changed over the years. Thus, though we glossed over this in a post some years ago, we now give a brief history of French law on nationality.

  • During the Ancien régime, the years of kings prior to 1789, only the king could confer French nationality, with a letter of naturalisation, une lettre de naturalité. This could have been granted to a foreigner living in the country,  un aubain.
  • At the beginning of the French Revolution, the rather vile concept of one being a subject of a king gave way to the marginally better one of one being a citizen of a democratically governed country. Citizenship could be granted to foreigners who may have done something fine for the Republic, (such as Thomas Paine, who had fine ideas, or as Joel Barlow, the American diplomat and conman who seemed fine at the time) and who resided in France. Citizenship rights were also granted to the children of French people who had left the country to escape the violence of the Revolution.
  • In 1804 the Civil Code allowed émigrés and their children to return to France and to be French; and for all foreigners born in France to choose, at the age of twenty-one, to acquire French nationality.
  • In 1851, double nationality was permitted, in part, for the first time. Those born in France to a foreign parent who was also born in France could be considered as French from birth; they could, on reaching majority, choose to surrender their French nationality. This right was annulled in 1889. (At that time, those born within France to a foreign father who had been born outside of France were not French. Women who married foreigners lost their French nationality.)
  • In 1889, needing more men for the army, the country changed the laws concerning foreigners born in France such that all foreigners born in France and still living in France at the time that they reached the age of majority and who had not surrendered formally their French nationality, were French and did have to do their military service. (See here and here.)
  • In 1927, after the reduction of the male working population by approximately one and a half million, with a further two million handicapped and unable to work, needs trumped exclusivity. The many working men who had come to France to fill the gap were allowed to become French more easily. Those who had lived in the country for three years could apply for nationality. Children born to French women who had married foreigners, became French; their mothers had already acquired the right to re-establish their French nationality.
  • In 1940, the Vichy government suspended all naturalisations. This was annulled in 1944 and 1945 and the possibility to become French again reappeared.

 To know more, read the excellent Ministry of the Interior publication here.

©2017 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

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