Current Affairs

Obstructing Access to French Archives - an Old Problem

OFPRA

Oh, Dear Readers, we have been experiencing a series of unsuccessful moments of late. Recently, we were told that our suggestions and aids to you in your French genealogical research are "too professional for the ordinary family genealogist". Dear Readers, we take that as an insult to you and to anyone who is striving to provide the best possible history of his or her family.

We are as aware as anyone of how the initial thrill at the volume and ease of genealogical discoveries on the Internet can make us balk at anything that requires more work, and call it a "brick wall". Yet, if we build our family history on only the easy discoveries, we risk producing something so scant as to be minimalist. We are reminded, by way of comparison, of our hoydenish mother, who studied piano all her life.

She was enamoured of the difficult études and mazurkas of Chopin but was not really willing to do the work to master them. Instead, she used her considerable charm to convince her teacher to rewrite the pieces, leaving out all of the "hard notes". She then blissfully played these denuded ditties, indifferent to the fact that they sounded more like nursery rhymes than Chopin. Surely, Dear Readers, you do not wish your genealogical research to be the minimum, composed only of what was quick and easy to find? Surely, though some of the skills and procedures we explain in this blog are a struggle, some of you have found the results to have been worth it?

At the same time, we do try to help here with clear and concise explanations of how to use various French websites and archives. We make a point of testing every website before we write of it here. It was in an effort to try out a newly announced website that we ran into another unsuccessful moment. 

There have been a number of genealogy bloggers in France who have passed on the publicity concerning new access to government archives concerning refugees and stateless persons, Office français de protection des réfugiés et apatrides (OFPRA). This was and is an important part of the government for it is this office that decides who receives asylum and who is to be granted refugee status. In its early days, it was particularly involved with refugees from the Russian Revolution who found their way to France. 

Their archives are open to the public after a certain waiting period. For files concerning individuals, that wait is fifty years after the date of the last document entered into the file. The recent exciting announcement stated that the files concerning people who had been granted Nansen passports can now be seen online. With a modicum of fanfare, OFPRA's website encourages "Internet users, descendants of refugees, genealogists and historians" to apply to use the site and to participate in indexing the documents.

We applied. Receiving no response, we applied again. A few days later, we received an old-fashioned, possessive archivist's haughty rejection. Our "interest", we read, was inadequate. Our two applications were perceived as a devious effort to get round the barrier, though we had not suspected its existence, but a barrier does indeed exist. We reread the invitation to the public to apply. Can one find a broader term than "Internet user"?

We have the impression that the invitation and publicity were written by someone younger or perhaps by the senior managers of OFPRA and that the archivist, possibly someone much older, did not approve of the move and is doing all that he or she can to obfuscate it. Oh, how many times we have seen this innate desire to thwart! 

We urge any and all of you, Dear Readers, if you have an ancestor who had a Nansen Passport and was in France, not to take the lazy route but to apply to OFPRA for files concerning that ancestor. It clearly will not be easy but do not give up. When you succeed, please do write and tell us about it.

©2018 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


French Inheritance Law in the News

Testament

Just in case our Dear Readers never, ever, for a second read any French news and do not know that the country's most beloved pop star and Elvis imitator died last year, he did. Johnny Hallyday was in his seventies and worth something over one hundred million euros. The press coverage about the dispute over his will and estate is worth following the better to understand (in an easy to read and entertaining way) how French inheritance law works and why your French ancestors followed certain legal procedures.

In particular, many of you have reported a letter to your ancestor from a French notaire concerning an inheritance. We have successfully researched notarial records and found letters from heirs who had emigrated to North America, thus determining the relationship between family members on either side of the Atlantic.

French wills and the sales of inherited property often have family genealogies written into them, with documentary proof on file. Why this is so is primarily because French law requires that all of the deceased's children and, perhaps, other heirs receive equal shares of the estate. No child can be disinherited. No child may receive a disproportionate share. This often baffles the non-French, many of whom come from cultures in which every person with money may do as he or she wishes, even after death (and they use the threat of disinheritance as a long-term tool of abuse and manipulation in life). Conversely, the French are just as ignorant of American or British inheritance law and are so baffled by the idea of trusts that these are defined in French news articles about the case.

 

Johnny Hallyday

Johnny Hallyday had, as is wont with such types, many relationships and liaisons producing a few children, two of whom he seemed no longer to appreciate. At the time of his death, he had homes in France and California, as well as elsewhere. In his will, he said he was a resident of California, lived there, and sent his two younger children to school there. In this Californian will, he left his entire estate to his wife and two younger children, with his wife as executor; the two elder children were left nothing. The management of the estate was put into a trust. It is a perfectly legal will in California but would be completely illegal in France. Not surprisingly, the elder children are contesting it in court. 

Because the estate is so large, the case is in the news quite a lot and will be so until there shall be a final ruling. We strongly urge you to read the articles about it in English and, if you can, in French as well, for it is an excellent and topical education on the subject.

 

©2018 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


Just Who Benefits In This?

Langue au chat

 You may recall, Dear Readers, that the Fond Coutot, being the largest private archives in France, were the creation of a professional genealogist, Amédée Coutot. He opened up business a bit over twenty years after the fires set by the Paris Commune destroyed the parish and civil registrations of the city. A lack of any birth, death or marriage records would have made his task of finding a family's heirs most trying. Using all that he could find among the records that survived and from many other sources, he and his son after him eventually built an archive of over ten million life events. These are available to the public, for a fee, online at GeneaService.

No expense was spent at all to make this a decent website and, surely, no cost, however great, or however small, was deemed necessary to convert an antiquated index card system into a database with a clear structure and a rational search facility. But for those who have a penchant for neon lime green, no thought of design or presentation was considered necessary. Nevertheless, the data is there and you can access it, eventually.

Now, Geneaservice offers a new option to its weary and exhausted users: that of uploading their family tree on their "Ma Famille" page. Here, you are encouraged to enter details from your family tree, up to your relations of the sixth degree. The enticement is that you may be discovered as an heir to a fortune. How can that be? Because the data you enter will also be available to professional probate genealogists to view in their search for heirs to estates.

We find this to be somewhat abusive, as well as a rather feeble effort at data mining. In our last post, we pointed out that French probate genealogists are heir hunters who demand a cut of the inheritance before they will put an heir in contact with the notaire in charge of the estate. We also pointed out that many such businesses are struggling to make ends meet. What better way to reduce research costs and increase the pool of patsies than to get family historians to provide their research at no cost? And there is the chance to doubly hit the dupes by charging them a percentage of a possible inheritance based on their own research.

We are a strong supporter of the superb volunteer community of French genealogists and we encourage our readers to be aware of the enormous amount of free websites and information available thanks to these thousands of volunteers' work, and we encourage you all to repay their efforts by sharing your genealogy work in return and by joining their societies or cercles. This GeneaService caper, however, is something to avoid; as the French say, ce n'est pas correct, ce n'est pas bon.

©2018 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


Is French Probate Genealogy on the Skids*?

Death in France

The eminent genealogy professor, Stéphane Cosson, has written an interesting blog post about the difficulties currently being experienced by French probate genealogists. He informs us that quite a few of them are going broke and his purpose in writing is to suggest a different business model.

Companies and individuals engaging in probate genealogy, (la généalogie successorale,) have, Monsieur Cosson explains, two basic types of projects:

  1. Documenting all heirs to an estate, with appropriate birth, marriage and death registrations, as well as any other relevant documents . These projects are carried out at the request of a notaire who is handling the estate. The fees are set and are rather low. If an heir be missed out by the genealogist, his or her insurance covers the payout due to that heir. This type of project consumes about 60% of a probate genealogist's work, but brings in much less than half the income, often not even covering costs.
  2. Hunting unknown heirs to an estate, which involves finding people related to the deceased but whom no one in the family knows exists. These are the big money projects as, before the genealogist will reveal to the heir the way to collect the inheritance, he or she requires that a contractual agreement be signed, giving over a hefty percentage of the inheritance. 

We have never quite been able to work out the legality of the second type of project for, if by law an heir has a right to an inheritance, surely then anyone who knows of it has an obligation to inform him or her of that inheritance. Placing an obstacle such as a contract that must be signed in the way of that obligation to inform seems to us to be the private medicine approach to the process, or comparable to refusing to tell a person who has the right to vote where he or she may do so until a contract be signed and a fee agreed. Nevertheless, that is how things are here but now, after some two hundred years, it is no longer working so well.

We would like to propose two additional causes of the probate genealogists' troubles to add to Monsieur Cosson's list.

  1. The increasing popularity of family research as a hobby in France means that people now are much more aware of who their relatives are and of any relationship to a person who might leave a tidy sum. Though battles have been fought between knowledgeable heirs and the larger probate genealogy research companies, it seems pretty clear that family historians will probably inform one another of legal procedures to follow to ensure that they will not have to sign contracts and pay fees.
  2. With the increasing influence of North American genealogy practices and styles (note the increased presence of French genealogists at RootsTech and the increasing number of liaisons between FamilySearch and French archives) views of this somewhat parasitic form of genealogy may be changing in France. If one reads the Standards of Practice and Conduct on the website of the Council for the Advancement of Forensic Genealogy, the first two points specifically prohibit the most lucrative and desirable type of research project of French probate genealogists:
    1. "Not take a forensic genealogy case on a speculative, contingent, percentage, or outcome-based fee agreement as many jurisdictions have found this constitutes a conflict of interest; 
    2. Not recruit beneficiaries or heirs for my own business, for other firms, or for attorneys..."

Because of the legal requirements concerning the distribution of an estate in France, notaires will always need probate genealogists to document fully all heirs to an estate, as in the first type of project described above. However, the second type of project may be, we posit, on its way out. Some genealogists would have to adapt to avoid suffering, but all heirs would be much better off.

 

©2018 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

 

*For our French readers, translation websites interpret this phrase to mean "sur les patins" ("on skates"); non! non! non! non! "On the skids" translates most closely to "être sur le déclin" or "battre de l'aile".

 

 


New Developments in the World of Citation

How to cite?

This is very interesting, indeed. We often visit the National Archives of Britain in Kew in order to research the genealogy of French people who have gone to or through Britain. It is a superb, hyper-modern facility, though too far a walk from the Tube station, in our opinion. Yet, in spite of all that modernity, some of the archival codes can be as baffling and as confused as the French codes we have come across in our research and pictured above.

It would appear that the archivists there may have come across the citation Bible, Evidence Explained, by Elizabeth Shown Mills or, perhaps, British genealogists are making increased demand for citation advice. Last month, TNA, as it is known, launched a "major research project", entitled Citation Capture. This project will "explore the nature of academic citations to archival, library, and other heritage collections, otherwise known as Unique and Distinctive Collections (UDC)." Surely, this sounds familiar to those of us who have been studying Ms. Shown Mills's monumental and recently revised work.

TNA will be working with Research Libraries UK and Jisc on this project. "As leaders in our respective fields, The National Archives, Research Libraries UK, and Jisc are well positioned to undertake this work. We would like to invite all interested parties to tender for this exciting work which will provide an invaluable overview of how academic citation practice to UDC collections and the published outputs based on UDC research," says Matt Greenhall, of TNA.

How wonderful that the entire British academic community is working together to determine how to cite non-book sources. We wonder if they have contacted Ms. Shown Mills? How, if at all, will this have an impact upon the recommendations in Evidence Explained for citing British materials? We also wonder when the French archives and libraries will do the same.* Oh! How we wish it would be sooner rather than later.

©2018 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

*Recall our discussion of French citation last year here and here.


Exciting News About Parisian Genealogy

La Parisienne-Collage

Very exciting news has been announced by the City Council of Paris yesterday. After deliberating the proposal, the mayor has signed the approval of a project for FamilySearch to digitise the very weary microfilm of the "reconstituted" parish and civil registrations of pre-1860 Paris. 

As dedicated readers of this blog will know, the Paris archives, along with quite a lot more, were torched by the Paris Communards in 1871. (Read that story here.) Something between five and eight million records, dating as far back as the 16th century, were destroyed. If your ancestors were from Paris and lived there any time from 1515-1860, their records – in some 5,000 bound registers - were destroyed.

Immediately after the fire, a group of researchers was formed and given the job of finding ways to recreate the information. They worked for 25 years. Copying parish and religious records, they managed to make a nearly complete reconstruction of the information for the years from 1802 to 1860. Working backward, it became much more difficult to find alternatives to copy. Roughly, 2.7 million registrations, or actes, were copied, in this breakdown:
 
  • 1802-1860 2.4 million actes
  • 1700-1801 2.4 million actes
  • 1600-1699 5000 actes
  • 1550-1599 5 actes
In the middle of war, 1941, the Paris archives began another reconstitution effort to find all available information on all Paris citizens since the Middle Ages not all ready found by the first reconstitution. This brought 200,000 mentions of people, mostly from lawsuits and other judicial records. As people who went to court tended to be those with money, these records preserve the identities of the wealthy and noble more than of everyday folk.
 
For a while now, it has been possible to search online the index cards to these reconstituted registers on the website of the Paris Archives, as in this example:
 
Sample reconstituted acte index card
However, it is not possible to see the actual document without going to the Paris Archives and looking at the microfilm. These microfilm rolls, we assure you, are getting exceedingly tattered and the images murky, as you can see:
 
Sample reconstituted acte
 
So, this news is exciting in that the images on the microfilm will be preserved for longer via digitising and they will be accessible online on both the FamilySearch website and the website of the Paris Archives. A boon for those researching Parisian ancestors. (Now, this must be something of a black eye for Filae, who are very keen to expand their offerings, and for Geneanet, who host the images of hundreds of Parisian court records. We suspect that the former will work out an indexing deal with the Paris Archives.) Sadly, we have no idea when this will take place but it is terrific news!
 
©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

 


French Archives Opt for Openness!

Celebrate French Archives

This really is very big news! The Archives nationales de France have made a choice for openness and have changed the rules for publishing images of items that they hold. We just spent six months corresponding and nagging to obtain permission to use our own photographs of a couple of pages from a file in the archives, hoping that they will enhance an article we hope to publish soon. Six months.

This new decision is a reinterpretation of an existing law and it has its limits. It applies only to those archives that are not covered by someone's copyright and that have passed the time limitations on access to protect privacy and so are open, or librement communicable. Actually, most of what interests genealogists is librement communicable.

What this means is that you may now put on your website and publish in your family genealogies images of archival records that you take from any of the Archives nationales locations or websites. You need not ask permission. There is nothing to pay. As to masking medical details (should you come across any, which is most unlikely) or contacting those who have claims of intellectual property on what you choose to publish, it is now your responsibility to comply with the relevant laws and to obtain the relevant permissions. You must also give the source information for each document shown.

To our knowledge, this does NOT apply to the archives of the individual departments found on the Departmental Archives' websites. Naturally, one hopes that they will follow suit pronto.

You may read the full announcement on the website of the National Archives here. The Ministry of Culture has a similar announcement here. For entertainment, you can read the latter's loopy automatic translation into English, calling the data wanton, as in hussy, here, but you will be thoroughly baffled by the time you get to the end.

This is good news!

©2017 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


2017 Challenge A-Z

A-Z

Every year in June the French blogger, Sophie Boudarel, launches the genealogy writing encouragement, Le Challenge A-Z. Every year June surprises us and we wish we had been more organised, more prepared and ready to participate, but we never quite are. Those who do participate, however, are writing increasingly interesting blog posts on French genealogy. This year, the best of them all, to our mind, are those by the students on the genealogy diploma course at the University of Nîmes. 

It starts off with great pertinence to you, Dear Readers, with A Comme Amérique, and tells of the research into the life and antecedents of French immigrant to California, Sylvain Bordes. Another, P Comme Pierre Justin, du Jura à la Caroline du Sud, also discusses a French immigrant to America. Other posts discuss the course itself and its director (C comme Cosson, R comme Reprendres ses études one from the point of view of the professor and one from that of the students). There are some that discuss methodology, such as S comme Sortie du Territoire, about the Archives diplomatiques, O comme Onomastique, about the study of surnames, and H comme Hypothèques, about the land registry archives.

There are posts on priests, prostitutes, bandits and embroiderers. All are extremely well presented, with source notes where appropriate and with excellent illustrations (though they can be, at times, a bit lurid for our delicate sensitivities). Every one of them is an excellent read.

Bravo!

©2017 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


Could DNA Testing for Genealogy Be Permitted in France?

Photo 51

Tomorrow we go to the polls again in France, this time for the run-off election for the legislature. All predictions say that the party of the newly elected President Emmanuel Macron, La République en March! (REM), will be the winner. This is expected to give President Macron (who is referred to by the press as "The Kid") a majority of supporters among legislators that could lead to many of his proposals becoming law.

President Macron is an educated man with an appreciation for sound science. While still campaigning, he issued a video in English encouraging American scientists, particularly disappointed climate scientists, to come to France, where their work would be supported, encouraged and, best of all, funded. 

 

Since becoming president, he has made a number of pro-science moves, including the "Make Our Planet Great Again", which offers foreign scientists four-year grants worth up to one and a half million euros each to come to France to do their research.

Is this a new Enlightenment? If so, will it open the door to DNA testing for genealogical purposes here? To date, such testing has been banned in France on grounds that it could be a violation of bioethics, as we explained in this post. Now, however, many in the French genealogy community, with the well-known Guillaume de Morant at the vanguard, have launched a petition asking parliament to review and change the restriction. Those of you who have attempted to trace French ancestors via DNA testing are aware of the shallowness of the French DNA pool in genealogy databases, (in spite of some one hundred thousand French people per year using the post to have foreign companies test their DNA). Should you wish to see this improve, we suggest that you sign the petition.

It will be interesting to see how far the pro-science stance of the new President and legislature will reach.

©2017 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy