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.
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