Women and Children

Dossier de Réintegration - Genealogical Joy from a Widow's Struggles


As we wrote in the previous post about women left widowed after the First World War, at that time, a Frenchwoman who married a foreign man lost her French nationality. That was a finality until 1922, four years after the war had ended, leaving the population of France much reduced and many, particularly war widows, impoverished.

That year, in March, the French Senate approved alterations to the Code Civil articles concerning nationality, granting the possibility for some women who had lost their nationality through marriage to become French again. It has not changed much and is still in effect today. The conditions were that the woman:

  • had to be widowed, divorced, legally separated or in some other way completely free of the foreign husband and his un-French influence;
  • had maintained or established manifest cultural, professional, economic, and familial ties with France.1

She had to submit documentary proof of the above with her application to the Ministry of Justice to have her French nationality restored, for her to be "reintegrated". If her application were approved, her nationality would be restored by decree, usually as one person in a batch. 


 Hundreds of women whose foreign husbands had been killed or whom they had divorced took advantage of this new opportunity. Regaining their nationality would have given them much better employment opportunities and the right to have a French passport, of only to emigrate with it.

The forms that they completed survive in the Archives nationales, showing their origins, their marriages, their divorces or the deaths of their husbands, births of their children and so much more. We have seen these applications show all those details, plus:

  • list all of the woman's siblings, with their ages and addresses
  • the woman's place of work and her salary
  • the name of the place where she boarded her children and what it cost her (more than half of her salary)

To find these dossiers, one must search on an index to the names of those in the nationality decrees called NATNUM. Unfortunately, this is not yet on the wonderful Salle des Inventaires Virtuelle of the Archives nationales and must be searched on site on their computers in the archives at Pierrefitte-sur-Seine. That takes one to a microfilm of the decrees:


The decree gives the woman's name, date and place of birth, her married name, place of residence, and how much of the fee was refunded. On the left is the number of the full reintegration application dossier, which may then be requested from the archives.

The process of obtaining one of these wonderfully detailed files is a bit complicated but not half as complicated as it was for the poor woman to complete and submit it.

©2017 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


1 "Code de la nationalité française", article 97-4, Legifrance, https://www.legifrance.gouv.fr/, accessed 4 September 2017.

Why WWI War Widows Had to Emigrate

War Widows

So often, people ask us why their ancestors left France and we must respond that the archives and documents rarely give reasons, only blunt statements of facts. However, if your grandmother or great-grandmother were a widow of a man who fought for France in World War One and she left France, the reason will be glaringly obvious: poverty.

The First World War left France with some 600,000 widows and close on a million fatherless children.1 In most cases, these newly fatherless families lost their breadwinner. The laws enforcing the customary oppression of women in force at the time made survival difficult if not impossible: 

  • Upon marriage to a foreigner, a woman automatically lost her French citizenship and her children were not French.
  • Girls received primary education but young women were not allowed to pass the baccalauréat, the basic education requirement for employment in any managerial position.2
  • A woman could not have an identity card or passport without her husband's permission.3
  • From 1871, in the Alsace and Lorraine regions, (which were returned to France in 1918) the law forbad women being the legal guardians of their own children. A male relative, such as a grandfather or uncle to the children took the role and, sometimes, the money.4
  • The work available to women in the early twentieth century was monotonous, long and poorly paid.5
  • The system of military pensions to widows nearly collapsed during the First World War.6
  • Our own research has shown that many war widows who did find work had to pay to place their children with families, often far from where they lived.

Very quickly, as the numbers of widows climbed during the war, the French government began to attempt to change the situation, in 1917 making orphans wards of the nation and, in 1919, granting better pensions to the war widows. In 1927, widows of foreigners could apply to regain their French nationality, and hundreds did so. The excellent study by Michael Lanthier (see notes 5 and 6) discusses in detail just how and why their lives were so very difficult. Suffice to say that they were and quite a few left. If your war-widowed grandmother left France during the inter-war period, you may now have a better understanding as to why.

©2017 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy



1 "Veuves et orphelins de la Première guerre mondiale", Chemins de Mémoire, http://www.cheminsdememoire.gouv.fr/fr/veuves-et-orphelins-de-la-premiere-guerre-mondiale  , accessed 3 Sept 2017.

2  Malnory, Camille, "Quand les Femmes ne Pouvait pas ouvrir de compte en banque", Liberation, 13 July, 2015, http://www.liberation.fr/france/2015/07/13/quand-les-femmes-ne-pouvaient-pas-ouvrir-de-compte-en-banque_1347300, accessed 2 Sept 2017.

3 Ibid.

4 "Enfants naturels", Archives départementales du Haut-Rhin, http://www.archives.haut-rhin.fr/search/home, accessed 2 Sept 2017. N.B. :This is one of those PDFs, orphaned and alone, lost, floating on the internet like a soul seeking a body and without a clear link to its origins, so we give it directly here, with apologies to the AD of Haut-Rhin. It will be discussed further in a future post.

5 Lanthier, Michael, "Women Alone: Widows in Third Republic France, 1870-1940 : Thesis Submitted in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy in the Department of History, Simon Fraser University", 2004, http://summit.sfu.ca/item/2275, accessed 3 July 2017, p38.

6 Lanthier, "Women Alone", p68.

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

Best Place for Genealogy Tourism in France? Montbéliard!




Montbeliard OT

For quite some time, we have thought that certain towns and cities in France really have been missing a tourism opportunity which is to welcome and encourage those seeking to research and to discover the origins of their French ancestors. La Rochelle and Le Havre certainly could do more, if Paris did anything at all it would be a grand thing, Calais and Boulogne-sur-Mer might take note. All should be watching the innovative and trail-blazing Montbéliard.

We had read a fine thesis on Montbéliard's programme for advancing genealogy tourism, tourisme de racines, by Ms. Messane Lepape (Une stratégie marketing appliquée au tourisme des racines at www.isthia.fr). It inspired us to contact the town's tourism office to learn more. Instantly, really, instantly, we received a reply from Madame Evelyne Boilaux, in excellent English, arranging a meeting. On the appointed day, she welcomed us at the Montbéliard tourism office, just in front of the train station. Petite, pixie-coiffed and energetic, Madame Boilaux offered us tea or coffee and launched, with understandable enthusiasm, into the glories of Montbéliard's mostly non-French and non-Catholic history. We then shared our lists of the many waves of emigrants from the city to other lands.

  • The French Protestants (Huguenots) who crossed the border into the then Principality of Montbéliard after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. Not only was it very close to home, but it was, at that time, the only Protestant and Francophone country in the world. As hope of a safe return to France faded, many moved on to other European Protestant countries and some from there continued on to the Americas and Africa.
  • The people known as the Foreign Protestants, recruited by the British from 1749 to 1751 to repopulate Nova Scotia after the expulsion of the French Catholics at the end of the Seven Years War. Their city of prettily coloured little houses, Lunenburg, a UNESCO World Heritage site, somewhat resembles cheerily painted houses in some of the roads of Montbéliard.
  • The Swiss and French Mennonites whose great-grandparents had arrived from Switzerland at the invitation of the ruler of Montbéliard, the Duke of Wurtemberg. His land had been depopulated by wars and the departures of the above and, not only did he want more Protestants, he wanted good farmers, which the Mennonites were reputed to be. They came and stayed until, when the region became part of France at the end of the eighteenth century, a general atmosphere of secularism along with Revolutionary fervour having tipped into insanity made them feel decidedly uncomfortable. Within twenty-five years, Mennonites as well as Lutherans were emigrating from the region to continents to the west and south.
  • The skilled labourers, especially watchmakers, of the region who had trained in the Japy factory and those of other brands, were poached by American factory managers, many of them moving to Connecticut.
  • In the late nineteenth century, there was another wave of which we did not know until enlightened by Madame Boilaux. It seems that the newly wealthy barons of unregulated industry had a yen for their children to speak French and learn to peel and eat a banana with a knife and fork. Only a French governess would do and only a Protestant could be trusted not to expose their children to unwanted Catholic prayers. At the same time, wealthy Russian Orthodox aristocrats wanted the same (though they showed up the Americans by usually having two governesses for their offspring, the other being Scottish and teaching an English that was grammatically perfect but ultimately most oddly accented in the speaking of their charges).

Thus, if your ancestry includes a Foreign Protestant, a governess, watchmaker, Mennonite or Protestant from the Montbéliard region, you may be interested in what the tourism office has to offer. If you arrive on a weekend without having contacted anyone in advance and with none of your research to hand, your visit will be a failure. If, however, you prepare your family history, preferably with photographs, clearly formulate your research questions and know the places you would like to visit, then Madame Boilaux and the staff of the tourism office can help to make your visit a success, taking advantage of their well-established network within the religious, genealogical and historical communities. Given enough time to prepare, she can arrange:

  • Accommodation and transport
  • Visits to relevant churches, synagogues or temples, with the possibility of attending a service and meeting the community
  • Meetings with local genealogists and genealogy groups specialising in your particular area of research
  • Introductions to archives staff and assistance in getting started with your research there
  • Visits to or at least to drives by ancestral homes or huts that are still standing
  • English-speaking tourguides
  • Visits to cemeteries
  • Introductions, with translators, if necessary, to distant cousins, if any

The more information that you provide in advance, the better will be the tailoring of your visit to your interests. Start planning now for this summer.

Office de Tourisme du Pays de Montbéliard

1 rue Henri Mouhot

25200 Montbéliard

tel: +33  3 81 94 16 05



Madame Boilaux also allowed us to photograph this charming map of the seigneuries of the principality of Montbéliard in the sixteenth century:

Principality of Montbéliard map

©2017 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Did English Women Take Advantage of Anonymous Birth Laws in France?

Mother and baby

Around the world, today has been about women, so we have decided to write of a conundrum about women that has puzzled us for some time. For most of the nineteenth century and up until 1922, it was possible for a birth to be registered in France without naming one or even both of the parents. The registration usually would be made by a midwife, sage femme, or more rarely by a doctor. The child's sex and name would be given. The father would be identified as simply "unknown father", père inconnu. Alternatively, the father and possibly also the mother could have been "not named", père non dénomé or mère non dénommée. This was usually done when a child was illegitimate and the mother or both parents wanted no record with their names linked to such a child. 

In French law, even if the child stayed with one or both parents, if they did not formally recognise the child, reconnaissance, he or she had no rights of family relationship, such as inheritance. If a woman wanted to abandon a child at birth without breaking the law, there was later a procedure to give birth completely anonymously, informally known as Accouchement sous X. (We recently noted a facebook group of such children trying to find their birth parents.)

Our conundrum comes from a pattern we have begun to notice. Rather a lot of people have told us of an ancestor who appears, seemingly out of nowhere, on a British census as a small child, living with his or her mother. The mother and the child have the same surname, but there is no father in the household. The census shows that the mother married in France and that the child was born in France, often in Paris. Yet, while the birth, with parents unnamed, at times may be found, a search for the marriage will be fruitless, when it should not be so. 

We begin to wonder if anonymous parents on a birth registration were not possible in Britain? (We know nothing of British genealogical research.) Is it possible that, for women who could afford to do so, coming to France to give birth anonymously and then returning with a new name, was actually a practice at one time? Dear Readers, have any of you come across this? Do, please share your tales.

UPDATE: Madame R. has sent this informative message:

In Britain, once birth registration began, in I think 1837ish, an unmarried mother usually gave her own name, and the baby's surname would be the same, with just a gap where the father should be. I have a grandmother and a great grandmother both of whom have missing fathers on their birth certificates. Before that in the early 19th century, 'natural born' children are very common in the parish baptism registers. The country was somewhat relaxed in its morals and less keen on church going. It took the vigour and renewal of the Oxford Movement to rebuild the dilapidated churches and change the devotional and 'moral' sensibility of the nation.

In the early years of the century, quite often working class or trades families might have the baby first and then get marred when they could afford to. By the time my grandmother was born in 1895 illegitimacy was such a disgrace that through her entire life she never admitted it, and was told that both her parents had died by the grandparents who brought her up.It was only later that she discovered the truth, but burned the letter and never told her children who her father was. So in the mid to late century, I wouldn't be surprised if inventing marriages in Paris was a desirable option, but I am not sure whether it would have been practical. Isn't it more likely that the marriage records are simply difficult to find, especially if they were before the Siege of Paris and the Franco Prussian War? If they just made up the marriage to cover the case, the mother would have to stay abroad a long time to be convincing. Perhaps they married at sea, which would be a different set of records. Incidentally the census returns do not ask where one was married only where born. Most likely the confinement was in Paris but there never was a marriage.

Many Thanks!

©2017 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy