Congrès national de Généalogie

XXIV Congrès national de Généalogie - de Morant on DNA

Congres 2017

Among the many lectures and workshops that we attended at the conference, the best attended, by a long shot, was that of the illustrious Guillaume de Morant. Monsieur de Morant is one of the best known figures working in French genealogy. He presents himself as a journalist and a genealogist but it is as the former writing about the subject of the latter that has brought him fame. He writes the blog for the Revue française de généalogie. He writes books. He reports on RootsTech.

We will not steal Monsieur de Morant's thunder by giving here the entire contents of his talk, but we hope that he will not mind if we cover a few of the more salient points. He began by asking how many in the room had taken a DNA test. A show of hands revealed that about five out of the fifty or so present had done so. He then launched into an encomium on the advantages for one's genealogical research of taking such a test, adding that it would also be useful for many other purposes in life, such as advance warning of inherited medical conditions, finding distant cousins, contributing to a broader pool of French data and thus helping the descendants of those Acadians figure out who their ancestors were.

Perhaps the most important point was one of very useful clarification. It is not, he said, illegal for a person in France to take a DNA test via a company that is outside of France. What the law states, he explained, is that it is illegal for a laboratory to commercialise such tests in France.  He urged everyone to take the test and to sign his petition asking the government to authorise DNA tests for genealogy. (Only 224 more signatures required.)

He proceeded to explain the three types of tests, pointing out that the procedure of getting the DNA sample is "not elegant", and to list the companies that he recommends. However, he added that one of the laws protecting privacy, loi informatique et liberté, requires that private data be masked and that includes biometric data by which an individual may be identified. Thus, an entire haplogroup cannot be put online by someone as parts of it may be shared by and could identify someone else, violating that person's privacy. 

Monsieur de Morant is an entertaining and charming speaker but he melted our heart by introducing us to a thrilling new French word when he said that some of the phrases of the law were liberticides, that is, freedom-killers.

Liberticides. Liberticides. Oh, Dear Readers, you will definitely be reading this word here again!

N.B. Be sure to read the interesting comment from Pierre Gendreau-Hétu, below.

©2017 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

 

 


XXIV Congrès national de Généalogie - Did Your Guadeloupean Ancestor Fight in the Great War?

Congres 2017

We found quite interesting the theme at the conference of researching those from France's ex-colonies in the West Indies and so we continued to pursue the talks on that subject. It was not always an easy thing to do for the names of the conference rooms had, most mysteriously, become jumbled. There was much to-ing  and fro-ing of people seeking the right room, asking others for guidance, and becoming alarmed by the sudden popping up of officious, self-appointed guides. In the end, we all found our places.

Our speaker was Monsieur Benoît Jullien, Director of the Departmental Archives of Guadeloupe. He had much to say that was enlightening as to why research into those of Guadeloupe who served in the First World War may have been difficult. Guadeloupe, (since 1948), is one of the departments of France and, since the abolition of slavery in 1848, all Guadeloupeans, including ex-slaves, have been French citizens. That citizenship, however, was not always enjoyed to its fullest by all of Guadeloupe.

With the First World War and the catastrophic loss of life in France, the French government turned increasingly to the ex-colonies and insisted that the military service laws be enforced. Monsieur Jullien explained that this had "enormous political significance" because, by doing so, the government of France was admitting that Guadeloupeans were, indeed, fully citizens of France. Though teachers, priests and seminary students were exempted, nearly ten thousand men from Guadeloupe were mobilised, following in the footsteps of the famous Camille Mortenol.

Initially, the French policy was to withdraw troops of mainland France who had been policing in the Caribbean and send them to the war in Europe. They were to be replaced by the newly conscripted local troops. However, even before the war began, in October of 1913, Guadeloupean troops were sent to Europe. They suffered from more than war, many dying of disease and cold in the inclement French winter. Monsieur Jullien's research shows that they were assigned all types of military work but none were promoted to be officers. Their furloughs, when granted, were too short for them to be able to go home to their island. As a result, many charitable societies formed in Paris and other cities to take them in during these times. (If you have ever been young, poor, alone and an outsider in Paris during the winter, Dear Readers, you will know just how much such charities might have been appreciated.) 

In the many, many commemorations and monuments to the dead and lost after the war, none initially mentioned those from Guadeloupe. The authorities "forgot", Monsieur Jullien politely put it. A separate decree was required to correct the omission and the first Monument aux Morts in Guadeloupe was erected in the 1930s.

Research into the military service of someone from Guadeloupe proceeds in the same way as in all other departments. Using the very attractive website of the Departmental Archives of Guadeloupe, search in the military conscription lists. With the number of the person that you will obtain, you may then request a copy of the personal file from the archives.

Bonne chance et merci Monsieur Jullien!

©2017 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

 


XXIV Congrès national de Généalogie - Research in Guadeloupe

Congres 2017

At the genealogy conference in Le Havre last month, one of the most informative lectures that we attended was given by a dashing young fellow from Guadeloupe, Monsieur Bruno Kissoun, come all that way to talk to us. The audience was so small that he insisted we sit around a table as he felt silly standing at a podium speaking to a near-empty room. So, we had a seminar around the table, which was even better. 

Monsieur Kissoun's co-presenter was an accomplished genealogist with a specialty in Guadeloupe, and a man with such energy and enthusiasm for his subject that he did not join us at the table but bounded back and forth across the room behind Monsieur Kissoun, lunging forward toward our table to add comments, then retreating back again in what may have been a remarkable display of extreme courtesy. 

Together, the gentlemen described and explained the resources available to those researching genealogy in Guadeloupe. 

  • There are thirty-two communes, or towns, on Guadeloupe, not all of which have complete archives. Hurricanes and general humidity have taken their toll. Additionally, while some towns were scrupulous about documenting people held in slavery, not all were. The point being that the quality and amount of holdings vary greatly.
  • Three copies of records were produced. One was retained in the town as the parish and civil registers, one was sent to Versailles and can now be seen on the website of the Archives nationales d'outre-mer (ANOM); and one was given to the departmental clerk and is held in the Departmental Archives. 

It was pointed out that the copies do not always agree, that many contain errors and that those that were sent to France and can now be seen on the ANOM website do not have the marginal notes that may be on the originals held in the town. Examples of such copies not in agreement were presented and discussed.

When researching a family in a village in European France, one sees that people tended to take care of family matters in their own village, possibly for many generations. In Guadeloupe, we were told, a family quite often baptised a child in a village other than that where the child was born, at times even on another island. The researcher must be imaginative.

Much discussion concerned the documentation of those who were enslaved. Some towns had registers of slaves and most towns maintained registers of freed slaves. Working with the two is necessary to try to piece together an individual's identity and relatives. The register of those born enslaved could contain for each person:

  • only a first name and no surname for the child
  • the date of birth
  • the name of the owner
  • the first name and the age of the mother
  • the mother's place of residence (plantation, or habitation)

When slavery was abolished and a register of freed slaves was made, very little information was given as the real point was to assign surnames and list people, thus:

  • a first name and the surname given to the father, where known
  • the mother's first name and the new surname given to her

As families appeared under mothers' names, for they went to register all of their children at once, but any older children who had been sold outside of the town would not have appeared with their mother and would not have been given the same surname. The surnames given and their meanings remain a highly emotive subject for, in many places, the officials responsible were quite malicious. The law forbade the giving of any surname belonging to a free person to a freed slave, forcing officials to use words not normally seen as names. Some used a dictionary or an atlas to find the words, others gave coarse and vulgar words as names and thus proved that they had tiny, poisoned souls.

We were told that it is exceedingly rare to find all of the above types of register entires as well as civil registrations for an enslaved person. Further to complicate such research are the facts that:

  • Towns maintained complete slave registers for each habitation within their boundaries, which probably would have given great detail as to birth or date of purchase, parentage, country of origin, etc. However, though no official order was ever given to do so, every single one of those registers in every town was destroyed.
  • There were no passenger lists created for the people kidnapped in Africa and taken to Guadeloupe. (However, those immigrants who were free on arrival may appear in the Gazette Officielle or on passenger lists, by vessel name, on the ANOM website.)
  • The many natural disasters that have assaulted the island and its archives -- hurricanes, tidal waves, earthquakes -- not only destroyed some archives, but jumbled them all up and scattered them so that, for those that could be saved, all order was lost.

 Monsieur Kissoun handed each attendee a copy of the Guide de généalogie familiale en Guadeloupe, a beautifully printed leaflet which explains the above and more. It has a precious chart, listing each town, the type of archives it had that have survived, the dates those archives cover, where they are held, and if they have been microfilmed. (Click on the title to download the PDF.)

A fascinating talk on a subject that includes great sadness.

©2017 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


XXIV Congrès national de Généalogie - Shall We Say Muted?

XXIV

We have just completed our attendance at the three days of lectures and a hall full of stalls that is France's largest genealogy event, the Congrès national de Généalogie, held in Le Havre. It is held every two years in different cities around France and this is our fifth time in attendance.

Some things, such as the celebration of local costume and custom, do not change.

Conference

Lace

 There were a large number of very interesting lectures, many about the history of Le Havre, which celebrated its five hundredth anniversary this year. Many more, of course, were about genealogical research, with a particular emphasis on France's overseas departments in the Americas.

The salon, or hall of stands and stalls was a mix of commercial genealogy enterprises and regional genealogy associations, the latter being in the majority by a large margin. The mood here was at first subdued and, by the end of the second day, downright gloomy. Attendance on the part of the general public was extremely low. At no point did the aisles ever seem the least bit crowded or even full. To be sure, it was very rainy and blustery weather but that should have proved no obstacle for Le Havre is a sodden city, along with the rest of Normandy. No, there is some other cause, and it may be the same reason that there were almost no French genealogists represented in the hall. Some said there were none at all. There certainly were none at the last Who Do You Think You Are? Live show in Birmingham. Yet there were French professionals at past congresses.

It is our theory that family research (as opposed to heir hunting) genealogy is under threat in France. We have explained probate genealogy. We perhaps did not add that généalogie successorale is a very profitable business, with each heir contacted having to sign a contract to turn over a hefty percentage of the inheritance. Nor did we mention that the business is pretty much sewn up in France by just a few, big companies. The fees of these companies depend upon the fact that 1) they find heirs who would not otherwise have been found and 2) they are the first to inform the heirs of the death that will bring them money.

Clearly, the boom in genealogy as a hobby and interest in France is a threat to the généalogiste successoral. Increasingly, French people are putting online their family trees and genealogical research. Increasingly, they are finding and communicating with one another, even having family gatherings called cousinades. Increasingly, they know when a relative dies and they know their relationship to him or her. Inevitably, the fees for the probate genealogists will suffer, but they are not taking this lying down.

The press, with the indomitable Guillaume de Morant at the vanguard, has angrily reported that the largest of the probate genealogy companies has embarked on a campaign of legally challenging the claims of heirs that they already knew of a death and/or that they already knew of their relationship to the deceased. And they win. In a 2014 case, (reported here) though a family genealogy had been written and shared in 1991, because it was not one hundred per cent complete and perfect, the heir who challenged the probate research company's fee lost and had to pay 14,000 euros, plus costs. In another case, in June of this year, a woman knew of her first-cousin's death and wrote to the notaire handling the inheritance to say so; she refused to sign the contract with the probate genealogy company. They took her to court and she had to pay them 35,000 euros (reported in full here).

There are plenty of French genealogists, many of them very, very good at what they do. They would probably love to attend all possible conferences and congresses, but in a climate where their work could be challenged or obstructed by a large, domineering and litigious company or two, they may wish to pursue a less public route to their clients.

France is a country where, generally, competition is considered a bad thing and the "preservation of tradition" has sometimes crossed the boundary into being cartels and having professions as closed as medieval guilds. It is the land of big power: big companies, big unions, big families, big government. It is not a country that celebrates or encourages individual independence or small business. In spite of the truly fabulous Station F, we do not see how its creator, Xavier Niel, or Macron, or even Moses will change that.

And where does that leave France's genealogists?

©2017 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

 


XXIII Congrès national de Généalogie - The History of Seals

Seals

We are still working our way through our reporting on the many fascinating lectures we attended at the 23rd National Genealogy Congress in Poitiers. To be honest, the subject of this post was one we had avoided for many years. The study of seals seemed to us tedious and dull, the objects fiddly and crumbly. In all, it seemed about as thrilling as those rows upon rows of tiny coins in glass cases in the British Museum. Not as much fun as research and not as much fun as piecing together information about lives long ago. As happens more often than we are happy to confess, we were wrong.

Monsieur Daniel Da-Ponte is an engaging speaker, small, highly audible and witty, though not a dab hand with an out-dated slide projector. He had the comfortable authority that comes with mastery of one's subject and managed to communicate his enthusiasm such that, by the end of the talk, the room was full of breathless converts to sigillography.

He began by pointing out that there are seals as old as one from 777 A.D., which survives on a document relating to Charlemagne, and that 50% of the seals that are still in existence are copies or fakes.

He gave a bit of vocabulary:

  • Bulle - is a seal in metal, often silver
  • Cachet - a small seal to ensure secrecy
  • Garde des Sceaux - Today, this is the Ministry of Justice
  • Lac - the silk or other type of ribbon that attaches the seal to the document
  • Matrice - the engraved object to print the seal onto wax
  • Queues - excess lac below the wax

During the Medieval era, which was the golden age of seals, apparently, the sealing procedure was thus:

  1. A document was written
  2. Ribbon attached the pages, often sewn through them at the side, binding them
  3. Wax (or, less often, lead) is dripped onto the two ends of the ribbon, closing them together, as would a knot; the wax was not on the document itself*
  4. The seal is pressed into the hot wax

Seals had nothing to do with heraldry, Monsieur Da-Ponte shouted emphatically, though they could, especially after the twelfth century, have the image of a family's crest. Their purpose was not to show relationship but to confirm or even replace a signature. Thus, a seal was an authentication of the approval if not the authorship of a document, to the point that it had probative value. For this reason, seals were very carefully guarded, often worn as rings.

Their value, he said, is in the study of Medieval costume, art history and social history and NOT genealogy. However, for those genealogists working on family records from the twelfth or thirteenth century, a knowledge of seals will be useful in confirming the authenticity of some of those documents. He mentioned that a claim made to him by one fellow to have used seals to trace his family line to 52 B.C. is preposterous (he glared around the room at this point, daring anyone to make a similar claim; no one accepted the dare).

He closed his cheery talk with the suggestion that anyone who can should visit the Musées du Sceau et Springerlé (delightful combination of subjects, that) in La Petite Pierre, Bas-Rhin.

©2015 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

 

*In our photograph above, 18th century wills have been stitched shut and the seals placed over each point where the stitching pierced the document.


XXIII Congrès national de Généalogie - Encounters

Cristol

One of the pleasures of the professional conference is, as everyone knows, the opportunity to hobnob. We hobnobbed and in doing so, encountered some impressive professionals with areas of specialization which we think could be of interest to our Dear Readers. Thus, we introduce:

Monsieur Philippe Christol (pictured above), whose lecture we had attended a day or two earlier. Monsieur Christol is an expert on Polish immigrants to France and all Francophone countries (Belgium, Switzerland, Canada, etc.), including those who may not have stayed in France but gone on to other countries. He asks that we be sure to state explicitly that he does not research immigrants to countries other than France. He is fluent in English and has worked with William Fred Hoffman, author of Polish Surnames: Origins and Meanings, and with Matthew Bielawa. We have found him most helpful and courteous.

 

Cappart & Hierro

Mesdames Marie Cappart and Liliane Hierro are colleagues from Belgium. Madame Liliane Hierro is an expert in using the Internet for research in Belgian genealogy. Madame Cappart, a cheerful soul, is fully trilingual in English, French and Flemish as can be seen on her blog. Both have helped a number of English speakers to research their Belgian roots.

N.B. Madame Cappart has written to ask that we disambiguate: she and Madame Hierro are friends but hold separate companies.

 

Cosson 1

We have written about Monsieur Stéphane Cosson and his excellent palaeography service previously. His fame preceded him and his stand was somewhat crowded with seekers of aid, each clutching a copy of an indecipheable document. Monsieur Cosson dealt with each with politesse and aplomb. 

 

Cosson 2

Monsieur Cosson is also very much involved with the genealogy course at Nîmes. The course is now available online and its directors are actively seeking participants. Monsieur Cosson also assured us that many of the professors are fluent in English and that the course can be adapted for English speakers. Should you wish to learn French genealogy from those who know it best, you would do well to investigate this course.

Nice people, all, and all willing to be of help.

©2015 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


XXIII Congrès national de Généalogie - Weather Disasters of Poitiers

La misère

At the conference, we attended a talk by  Monsieur Jean Hervier entitled "La météo à Poitiers sous la Révolution". It covered a broader time period, the forty years from 1776 to 1816, and every one of them interesting. Too often, Dear Readers, we look for an emotional, religious or political cause for ancestors having left France: a broken heart, a duel, a family quarrel, a staunch aristocrat during the Revolution, a staunch Communard fleeing the reprisals after the Paris Commune, the Protestant escaping persecution, but the reality is that the cause is just as often economic.

Recall that, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the world, France included, was largely agrarian and each small farm teetering on the edge of ruin at every climactic irregularity. We have written before of how disease of farm animals could bring ruin and ruin could lead to emigration. We are must indebted to Monsieur for presenting plenty of other reasons why some living in Poitiers may have given up and gone elsewhere, among them:

  • 1776 - The rivers were blocked with ice floes and did not flow, delaying spring planting. When the ice began to break up, many boats were destroyed by it.
  • 1781 - A June hail storm destroyed property and early crops
  • 1784 - There was a very hard winter, with snow for six weeks, for two weeks of which it snowed non-stop, to a place that did not normally have much snow at all. Farm birds and wild birds died of the cold, the hay ricks were ruined, houses collapsed from the weight of the snow. Markets and fairs did not take place as transport was impossible and it was too cold for many.
  • 1787 - Though not directly a weather issue, during this year there was a measles epidemic that killed many.
  • 1788 - A July hailstorm was so severe that the hail stones killed livestock. The summer storms were so heavy that there was flooding, which brought mudslides.
  • 1789 - Before the storming of the Bastille up in Paris France experienced one of her worst winters ever recorded. In Poitiers it was so harsh, with two months of temperatures below zero, that the rivers froze and farm animals died, as did fruit trees. When they thawed, the blocks of ice were so big and the water rushing so fast that the blocks smashed up bridges, watermills, boats, trees and houses.
  • 1803 - July hailstorms again killed livestock.
  • 1816 - This was "the year without a summer" around the world. On the 10th of April 1815 the volcano, Tambora, in Indonesia had erupted, filling the atmosphere with ash that blocked sunlight. In Poitiers, temperatures dropped to freezing in August, there was no harvest and almost no fruit, nothing in family vegetable plots had enough sun or warmth to ripen. 

These weather disasters were too often followed by epidemics, famine and ruin. At the same time, from 1789 to 1815, France was almost always at war. It must have seemed, to many, as if the Apocalypse had come. The only wonder is that more did not make the decision to walk to the coasts and take whatever leaky vessel they could to whatever land would offer them hope and opportunity. Most of us are proud of our migrant ancestors. If your ancestor left France during the period above, it may have been due to the bad weather, and all the consequences thereof.

©2015 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


XXIII Congrès national de Généalogie - Maps of French Florida

FF

 

At the conference, we had the choice between a discussion of a Quebecois family, an introduction to French genealogy blogs and Daniel Rocchi's "Les Cartes normandes des XVIème et XVIIème siècles et la Floride, l'apport des cartes de Verrazane (1529),  Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues (1564/1591), Jacques et Pierre de Vaulx (1583/1584 et 1613)". Naturally, we selected the last, for we admire those whose intellectual passion can make them oblivious. Monsieur Rocchi confessed to have prepared his talk originally for the International Conference on the place of French and Francophone Culture in Florida, which was given "as a part of the continuing celebration of the 450th anniversary of French heritage in Florida." We did not mind being among those to hear it on its second run. 

Verrazano, a Florentine born in Lyon, mapped much of the eastern coast of North America, and even named what is now New York Santa Margherita Angoulemme to please the French king. 

Verrazano

Unfortunately, he was killed and eaten somewhere in the Caribbean.

Gaspard II de Coligny, one of the most important of Huguenot leaders in the sixteenth century, sent Protestant colonists to Brazil. They were removed by the Catholic Portuguese. He also aided in sending Protestants with Laudonniere to found Fort Caroline in Spanish Florida; they were slaughtered by the Catholic Spanish in 1565. A French escapee was Jacques le Moyne de Morgues, painter and mapmaker. Unfortunately, all of his paintings, drawings and maps were burned in the Spanish attack. After a voyage back to Europe that nearly killed him (they got lost), he repainted some of the lost works from memory, opening the door to the creation of fraudulent works attributed to him, and spent his remaining days as a superb botanical artist in London.  

Floride

The de Vaulx brothers were both pilots from Le Havre. Jacques de Vaulx was one of the Dieppe School of mapmakers, went on a voyage to Brazil, where he visited Fort Coligny, and produced an atlas. He also wrote a treatise on navigation. His younger brother, Pierre, left a single work, a truly exquisite map of the Atlantic Ocean, done in 1613, showing, with much more, Florida.

De Vaulx

After all of those luscious images, Monsieur Rocchi left us.

For those who wish to know more on the early French colony in Florida, we recommend Chroniques de la guerre de Floride : Une Saint-Barthélemy au Nouveau Monde (1562-1568) and Le Huguenot et le Sauvage, by Frank Lestringant. 

©2015 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


XXIII Congrès national de Généalogie - The Purpose of Archives

Didn't make it to an archive

The talk that Monsieur Benoît Jullien gave so expertly seemed to be aimed at explaining the purposes and functions of archives to genealogists, many of whom may tend to see only their own requirements concerning archives. He began by explaining the administrative reasons for their initial establishment by the fledgling Republic. There had to be some place to store the originals of laws passed and judicial decisions handed down, as well as all of the debates, discussions and ministerial procedures and operations that had taken place in the running of the government at every level. Lest we forget: to those who established archives and manage them, the historical or genealogical value of their contents must come second to their administrative importance to the operation of government.

Ever so gently, politely and entertainingly chastened, we listened on as Monsieur Jullien discussed the

  • Problems of conservation, particularly as concerns those documents sent in electronic form;
  • Decisions concerning value and what to keep or not, giving an example of the date on a manuscript in the Departmental Archives of Vienne being the year 540, which would make it the oldest document there, except that it is a fake from the 11th century, (the oldest document that they have is dated 780) but now the fake is so old that it has some historical value as well;
  • Issues of organizing the information, especially after a complete restructuring of government administration in the 1980s, the first such in two hundred years, e.g. does one reorganize the archives to reflect the new structure or create ever more convoluted finding aids to guide those from the future to the past?
  • Problems of burgeoning: in 1812, the Departmental Archives of Vienne had 150 linear meters of material; in 2013, they had 27,000, which leads to...
  • Problem of location. Everyone would like the archives to be in the centre of town, within easy access, but this would be exceedingly expensive, considering the amount of space now required. Thus, throughout France, archives, as they expand, are being relocated away from city and town centres. (Seemingly by way of compensation, snazzy architects are offered up: Bruno Dumetier, Zaha Hadid, etc..)
  • Need to balance uses of and rights to the contents of the archives: the right to access vs. the new right to be forgotten, the government's memory, free speech, the right to discover and know one's origins (Interestingly for genealogists, he pointed out here that for those whose ancestors were slave on Saint Dominique, the records may not only be there, but in the property tax records of the department where the slave owner originated. Thus, the Departmental Archives of Vienne property tax records from the early nineteenth century contain lists of people held in slavery on Saint Dominique.)

Monsieur Jullien then broached the touchy subject: the right to access archives as opposed to the demand to publish, reproduce or sell them. (See our previous post.) He made the important differentiation between the form of the documentation (microfilm, paper, electronic, etc.) and the information it contains, saying that the issues being fought so furiously at the moment -- those of copyright, ownership, payment, etc. -- must apply only to the former and never to the latter, which must remain open and free to all. We believe that many who rant on this subject should reflect on that point. Lastly, he almost begged for there to be a concurrence on this subject among all archives facilities in France. "We need a solution."

After much applause, there were questions from the audience, all of which seemed to focus on the private family archives people had amassed and would like to donate, but would they be accepted. The answer was a resounding affirmative.

©2015 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


XXIII Congrès national de Généalogie - Archives

Artillerie

Monsieur Benoît Jullien is the Director of the Departmental Archives of Vienne. His bosses at the General Council of Vienne are fiercely opposed to the commercialization of the archives and have been in a court battle with NotreFamille, who own Généalogie.com, since 2009, trying to block their commercial use of and indexing of images of parish and civil registrations and census returns taken from their website. In 2013, Vienne won a judgment handed down by the Tribunal in Poitiers, the court approving their argument that, as they had spent 230,000 euros to digitize the records, they owned the database, making it their intellectual property. The French law on intellectual property clearly states that if the product were created by an entity in the public sector, it could be used strictly and only in a way necessary to fulfill the functions of public service, (such as ensuring free access to public archives). And anyway, Vienne added, "it is indecent to make money from the work done with public funding".

Another argument has been that this commercialization, by charging a fee for access, actually infringes upon the freedom of access to the records in question, which was enshrined in a 1978 law. NotreFamille countered with a 2005 law that mandated that archives, as a part of France's national heritage, must be available to be used freely by all citizens. In February of this year, a court of appeal at Bordeaux annulled the Poitiers decision and it seemed that NotreFamille, who have fought in courts against every similar objection of Departmental Archives around the country, had won.

Tempers were high; articles appeared in the press with such titles as "Your Ancestors Will Soon Be For Sale". But the court of appeal had only annulled the Poitiers decision and then said it would issue a new decision soon. Lo and behold, that decision was that the Departmental Archives of Vienne did own the database that they had created and could limit its re-use to public service organizations, as it wished to do. It added that NotreFamille is not a public service organization. So, though the Departmental Archives of Marne, Essonne and others lost in their courts against NotreFamille and their records are appearing on Généalogie.com, Vienne did not and those records of Vienne would not be appearing on that website.

The battle continued when NotreFamille appealed to the Council of State in April and asked it to rule on the constitutionality of the Bordeaux decision. The General Council of Vienne had ten days to prepare their case. That cost the city another 6000 euros. Last month, the Council of State ruled, and confirmed that Vienne is the owner of its database and, therefore, can decide who may republish it and how. It also refused to refer the case to the Constitutional Council. Those who see the issue as one of free access to mean also financially free cheered, while those who see the issue as one of free access to mean an unqualified absolute despaired that this was a blow to open data. Almost immediately, a lawmaker (who happens to own a data management and security company) in the National Assembly proposed a bill that would remove the wording from the intellectual property law that was used by Vienne to make its case. And there we are, for the time being.

Now, as an aside, recall that there is another set of those microfilms of the parish and civil registrations whose images form the content of the Departmental Archives of Vienne's database. The owner of that set (who happens to own duplicate sets of microfilmed registrations from nearly all of France) could also create a database of the images which would, according to the above rulings, be its intellectual property, to do with as it wishes, even index it and put it online, even charge a subscription fee to use it. As that owner is a foreign company in direct competition with NotreFamille in French genealogy markets, one interpretation of the rulings might be that the courts of France have just handed an enormous opportunity to a foreign competitor by allowing it to do in France what French companies of a similar nature may not. Never accuse this country of protectionism.

As we wrote at the beginning, Monsieur Benoît Jullien is the Director of the Departmental Archives of Vienne, reporting to the General Council of Vienne, and the capitol of Vienne is Poitiers, where the Congrès national de Généalogie was being held. NotreFamille's enterprise, Généalogie.com was, by far, the largest commercial presence at the conference, with by far, the largest stand. 

Conference 5

Perhaps one felt a tension in the air, and perhaps this tension was the cause of the very subdued atmosphere at the conference to which we have referred? We certainly felt an extra awareness in the audience when Monsieur Jullien stood to give his talk about the purpose of archives and their role in society. We report on his steadily delivered, clear and interesting talk in our next post.

©2015 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy