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The Military Uniform That Is Not - the Grandes Ecoles

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There has been much in the presse généalogique recently about a dust-up that ended over a year ago, with the loser returning home, presumably to engage in the French-bashing so ignominiously fashionable there. We wrote about aspects of this tussle at the time here and here on the blog. Essentially, a number of commercial genealogy companies that have large websites of data bases with good search facilities, want to gain the right to index and link to the actes d'état civil and other records held in Departmental Archives. The key players have been Notre Famille, who own, and Ancestry's French arm, each of them versus the various archives facilities in France.

Ancestry lost. It is not yet clear if Notre Famille has actually won. It may even turn out that the many Departmental Archives will gain the field. That civil servants eventually could beat out two substantial corporate entities may be incomprehensible to the Anglo mind but then, it is unfamiliar with the extraordinary bellicosity and stubbornness of French bureaucrats, who, like Ricci, would rather lose all than change a structure. In any case, the game is not quite over and we are not in the business of clairvoyance.

Of interest here are the candid revelations of Clotilde de Mersan, development director for Ancestry France, in an interview for La revue française de généalogie. When asked as to what she thought went wrong, it would seem at first like a classic old tale of the Continental preference for tradition and long lunches as opposed to the those with the philosophy that the market drives all. De Mersan's reasons for what went wrong are:

  • Ancestry's "industrial" vision and business model did not sit well with the French civil servants;
  • It was not possible to create an indexing of all of the data from all of the actes d'état civil across the country because:
    • Notre Famille got there first and had exclusive contracts with many of the associations that had done the indexing locally, and
    • many of those associations refused to work with either corporation, or with any other, on a general anti-business principle;
  • The Departmental Archives, having lost a legal battle against Notre Famille to prevent any commercial use of their records, then charged such exhorbitant fees for that use that all hope of profit was lost;
  • Finally, it was too much of a headache to have to negotiate separate contracts with each of the one hundred Departmental Archives facilities.

Ancestry may have thrown in the towel, and Mme. de Mersan states that they will not be renewing the few contracts for data base rental that they do have, but the same magazine, in a special issue on "The Best Data bases" leads off with an article on how Ancestry's French website can still be of use. They list:

  • The Paris Collection of thirteen million names, even though all of it is also available on and on the website of its source, GeneaService of Andriveau.
  • A few indices of names from some of the cercles or associations, notably Bretagne.
  • Of particular interest to people in France researching ancestors who emigrated: the North American passenger arrivals lists and census returns, which can indicate a person was French.
  • An indexing of and link to genealogical works held in the Bibliothèque nationale de France which has its own, free, website, Gallica to which the Ancestry site links anyway.

To our mind, Ancestry was defeated in France not because of a cultural clash, but for two reasons. Firstly, many Departmental Archives are staffed by people vehemently opposed to any company cashing in on their holdings; secondly, the folks at Notre Famille -- free market dynamos all the way -- would seem to have administered a more forceful coup de pied au corps.

©2012 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy