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Summer Reading - Contested Paternity

Contested Paternity

Fairly regularly, we are contacted by people wishing to prove their descent from a Frenchman, usually a king or member of the nobility, but it seems that anyone famous will do for some folks. Many assume that the thinking and legislation in France are identical to what is found in their own countries. While there may be some similarities, on the whole, France is different. We think it may be useful to share the very fine resource on the subject: Contested Paternity : Constructing Families in Modern France, by Rachel G. Fuchs of Arizona State University.

Ms. Fuchs conducted much of her research in a number of French archives and libraries, including the Archives de l'Assistance publique, the Archives nationales, and the Archives de Paris. She has written a highly readable and most scholarly work on the subject of paternity disputes and family structures in modern France.

This is a work of history and social science, not genealogy. However, there are discussions of some key historical events and laws of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that are of interest to the genealogist seeking to determine an ancestor's paternity.

Most important to know is that "the Code Napoléon -- the French Civil Code of 1804 -- expressly forbade paternity searches (recherches de paternité), and...that law remained unchanged until 1912." (p1) A mother could not file a paternity suit for her illegitimate children. When the law changed in 1912, it still exempted married men from being sued. (p13) A mother's only hope of claiming support for an illegitimate child was if the father had specifically gone through the process of recognition of a child.  Thus, efforts by genealogists and  researchers to find records of a paternity suit during those years, particularly of a married man, are likely to prove  futile.

Other key dates are:

  • 1889 - marked the first laws that enabled the state to take children at risk away from their parents
  • 1923 - the adoption of children into a family (as opposed to that of adults to be made heirs) was made legal
  • 1955 - children born as the result of adultery could, for the first time, demand support from the fathers, but not filiation, e.g. the right to use a father's surname or to inherit from him or his family.
  • 1972 - paternity suits could be brought against married men; blood testing was permitted as evidence in paternity suits; natural children were given the same rights as legitimate children
  • 1993 - DNA testing was permitted as evidence in paternity suits

These dates will help a genealogist know what to expect and may better guide their research. To understand more, we strongly recommend that you read Ms. Fuchs's book from cover to cover. 


Contested Paternity : Constructing Families in Modern France

Rachel G. Fuchs

Baltimore : Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008

353 pages


©2011 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy