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September 2015

Too Much Paper or Too Little Documentation?

Fighting Fonctionnaires

Daily life in France is regularly discoloured and befouled by one annoyance: dealing with bureaucrats, les fonctionnaires. They have in France an inordinate amount of power, which they delight in abusing. They are usually rude, abrupt, arrogant, critical and determinedly obfuscating and obstructive. It is every bit as difficult for the French themselves to deal with them as it is for foreigners. They are a despised class who care not a whit that they are detested, for they feel themselves far superior to everyone. They do not think of themselves as civil servants ("servant" being an abhorred word in France since the Revolution); indeed, their real function, as outlined here, is to protect the institution which employs them, not to carry out the functions which are its purpose for existence.

The simplest requirement, be it a driving license, a passport, the need to change one's address with the tax authorities, etc. will require authenticated copies of numerous documents. There is no list of what is required; it is up to the mood of the fonctionnaire making the demand. Supplying the authenticated documents may lead to a request for more. As no copy may be more than three months old, it is possible that, by the time the last request is fulfilled, the first may have to be renewed. (Some time ago, we told of our own experience here.)

People have different ways of dealing with this but just about everyone agrees that it is fatal to one's cause to lose one's temper with a fonctionnaire. Immediately, with a smirk of triumph, they accuse one of threatening behaviour and will completely ignore one from that point on. You have not got a prayer. Your file will be "lost" and it will take years to get the process going again. There is no complaint process, no ombudsman. All who live in France are at the mercy of the fonctionnaires.

Occasionally, in the interest of some streamlining programme or if the government wants to make some token action toward easing the paperwork pressures on businesses, some little law is proposed to reduce the amount of copies required for a particular operation. Sometimes, this works. In the past, it was necessary to send up to eighteen copies of a person's death registration to all the government bodies that needed to know that the poor soul was no longer with us. Now, a single online form is all that need be completed and the others are notified automatically.

A recent reform effort has both archivists (who are, we stoutly maintain, the only truly nice people among  fonctionnaires) and genealogists ready to give someone in the Ministry of Justice a double moulinet. That ministry has proposed that, if a commune were to have an appropriate electronic system and database, a second register book for births, marriages and deaths -- the actes d'état civil -- need not be maintained. Recall that the procedure has been, for a couple of centuries, for every commune to maintain two register books, keeping one in their own archives and sending the other to the Departmental Archives.

Archivists argue that there is no complete system from central government that is ready for communes, which means that those with wealth will have and those without will not, creating a "two-tiered system". They also point out that no plans have been discussed for archiving the electronic vital records, merely for their short-term back-up. Their concern is not to avoid electronic records, but to ensure that all citizens can at all times obtain the documents necessary to their identity and legal status.

Genealogists are much more combative and say that the idea is wrong, wrong, wrong. The Fédération Française de Généalogie says that the physical civil register would be the only one with authenticity, as the electronic records cannot be authenticated. Reliance on just the one physical register would be very risky. Recall the burning of the Paris City Hall, they say, with the loss of eight million registrations. They, too, are not opposed to modernization, merely to the weakening of the existing system. They have launched a petition against the bill on and are urging all to sign.

What will happen? It has been our observation that, whenever anything is protested in France, even if quite tepidly, the government caves. We predict that both registers will be maintained AND that electronic registration will be introduced, ensuring a long and smug continuation of the status quo for the fonctionnaires.

©2015 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

FGB Free Clinic - Case no. 2 - Claude Guillaume Montet

Petits Soins

Our country home is in Périgord, a beautifully empty region in the southwest of France. It makes for a calming escape from the racket and excitement of Paris, allows for gardening, reading before an open fire and, most importantly at the moment, the concentration needed for our work on our next book. Yesterday was all blue skies and golden autumn sunshine; we harvested grapes, all twelve that remained after a visit of the blackbirds. Today, is rain and cold and fog, so we come indoors to address you, Dear Readers. As we are here, a suitable choice for the next FGB Free Clinic case is that of a man who came from this part of France.

Madame Millhollon writes to us about her ancestor:

My ancestor Claude Guillaume Montet was born on Jan. 23, 1737 in Cajolay (Perigeaux), France - at least that's how it was recorded later in life. Obviously, this was a misspelling as there doesn't appear to be a Cajolay. His parents were recorded as Francois Montet and Marie Martin. I'd love to know who his brothers and sisters and grandparents were. 

A snap trawl of the Internet shows that Madame M. is not alone in her search of Montet's origins, though others say that Montet gave not Périgueux, a city, but Périgord, a province, as the location of his town. Thus Cajolay would not be a parish of the city of Périgueux - and it does not turn up in any list of parishes for the city - but a town of the province of Périgord, which is now, more or less, the department of Dordogne. 

Madame M. has already searched diligently and found no such town, Cajolay, but in an effort to be thorough, we duplicated her search a bit. Indeed, no such town of Cajolay (which, we must say, does not "look right" as a French town name anyway) turns up on :

  • The list of old commune names for Dordogne
  • The list of current commune names for Dordogne
  • The communes found on the Cassini maps, which was nearly contemporary with Montet's birth

More tellingly, no town name beginning with the letters Caj appears on any of those lists (though there is a Cajarc in nearby Lot, that hardly seems close in pronounciation). This means that, almost certainly, there was a misunderstanding of a strong accent or a limited understanding of the notoriously difficult French spelling (not enough of those torturous dictées in the classroom) or both. We have written about just such a mangled town name and our struggle to solve the mystery here. In that case, Claude was pronounced "Glaude" and Vaugrigneuse was written as Vecin graingrouge, causing no amount of trouble.

So, we have to try to imagine what Montet was saying when the person listening recorded Cajolay. Recall that, given that  Périgord is located in the region of Aquitaine in the southern half of France, he may have spoken Occitan and his French may have had a thick Occitan accent. As no recordings of early eighteenth century speakers of Occitan exist, it is really anyone's guess as to how it sounded but, based on how modern accents in the region sound to us, we are guessing that the J could have had a bit of a ZH sound. Searching the same three sites above, the only town that is in Dordogne that -- to our ears -- has a sound that could have produced Cajolay is Cazoulès.

We are not entirely comfortable with this, but the only way to know is to check the parish registers to see if Montet may not be there. These are online and may be seen at no charge on the website of the Departmental Archives of Dordogne. Frustratingly, there seems to be no baptism register for the year 1737. Nor do searches on the Montet family details given by Madame M. on Bigenet or Geneabank reveal anything useful, which is to be expected if the relevant register is missing. 

What would we do at this point? We would start with a cursory glance through the registers of Cazoulès that do survive to see if the name Montet appears at all. If so, we would look deeper, seeking in those years closest to 1737 to see if Claude Guillaume and/or his parents appear as relatives or witnesses. We leave that to you, Madame Millhollon.

With such a conundrum, we do hope that many will write in with more suggestions as to finding the true identity of Cajolay.

Excellent suggests in the comments to this post have been rolling in.

©2015 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


The Online Genealogy Manual of the Archives Nationales


While we very much miss the lovely old Salle des Inventaires (Room of Finding Aids) that was in the Archives nationales in central Paris, no one can deny that it did have its drawbacks. The books lining the walls of the room listed all of the holdings of the archives, but there was no way to search them all and they certainly could not be accessed remotely and/or by the Internet. It is gone now, and all of the books have been shipped out to the new facility at Pierrefitte, which opened a couple of years ago, and are now in a room that may look good when photographed in an architecture magazine, but is gloomy, cavernous and depressing to enter.

Apparently, this cavern was never intended to be used by people and will probably be a coffee shop one day (which would be very nice, actually) because more and more of those finding aids are appearing online on the constantly improving page, Salle des Inventaires Virtuelle. We have touched on this resource here before, in relation to Parisian notarial records. It may be reached directly by the link just above, or from the main page of the website of the Archives nationales. The following screen shots show where to click to get to the site of the Salle des Inventaires Virtuelle:  

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This brings you to the main SIV page, where you want to click on the Conseils pour la recherche (Help with research) :


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Which brings you, in the left-hand column, to a wonderful online genealogy manual concerning the resources of the National Archives of France:


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Not all of the research suggestions are concerned with genealogy, but those that are are excellent and clear. Each question leads to an explanatory page. The Pour Commencer (to begin) section includes: 


That is followed by a section on General genealogical and biographical research:


Then, there is advice on research by profession:


Should you wish to research in naturalization records:


Or among those awarded honours or medals:


Access to Parisian notarial records is explained:


There is advice on how to research a building or community:


Or a person in a religious community:


Modern history, with much on the two World Wars, is covered:


Should you wish to research an artist or architect:


Or a company that employed or was founded by your ancestor:


The oddly arranged numbering is a hold over from when each of these research guides was on paper. They were numbered and in a display at the information desk in the old Salle des Inventaires. Now, the entire collection, and much more, is available in one place online and all together, it forms a really rather superb manual to French genealogy.

Dust off that dictionary and plunge in!

©2015 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

FGB Free Clinic - Case no. 1 - Pierre Rouyer

Petit Soins

WHEW! Many, many cases have come through and we are not certain of the most elegant way to treat them, so we will just jump in and see how it goes.

Monsieur Al Rouyer writes:

My great-great-grandfather, Pierre Rouyer arrived in the United States in 1821 from Bordeaux France. In the 1850 US census he list his birth place as 'St Domingo' but in the 1860 census it is Bordeaux France. His wife, Marie Eyquem was born in Bordeaux and immigrated from that city in 1828. All efforts to locate Pierre either in Bordeaux vital records or those from overseas French records have proved fruitless. He was born in 1806 and emigrated when he 15, but from where? And who are his parents and ancestors?

Monsieur Rouyer, because it is easier, the first place that we would look is among the passports issued at Bordeaux. These are on the website of the Archives départementales de la Gironde. We wrote at length about the resource here; it contains the images of some 44,000 passports that were issued at Bordeaux between the years 1800 to 1899. You may also want to search on the year of travel alone, to see if that may not reveal something interesting.

Have you the arrival passenger list for Pierre Rouyer? Did the ship arrive directly from Bordeaux or elsewhere? Did he arrive alone or with family members? If he arrived as a child with his parents, you may have better luck searching his father's name on French genealogy websites, as there would be more records on an adult.

A search for the name on shows that it is not at all rare, making your hunt more difficult, but it also shows that, nearly 100 years after your ancestor emigrated, the name was most common in northeastern France. It probably was more heavily concentrated there in 1821, a bit of knowledge that will not be of much use to you at the moment but may help to guide your search later. Searching for Eyquem, however, shows that it is very clearly a name from the region around Bordeaux, and researching Marie Eyquem may be easier.

If Pierre Rouyer were born in Saint Domingue, the French colony on Hispaniola, you might want to search the surviving birth and baptism registrations for the colony on the website of the Archives nationales d'outre-Mer. Unfortunately, you would need to know the town where your ancestor was born for it to be a quick and easy search.

A quick look at his very impressive tombstone on Find-A-Grave shows that his date of birth was known by the family to have been the 13th of November 1806 (this would make it easier to search the Saint Domingue records, as for each town they are shown chronologically). That was bang in the middle of the Napoleonic Wars, making it very likely that his father would have had a military record. IF you have the father's name and IF the father lived until 1857, you may try searching the website of the more than 400,000 surviving soldiers of Napoleon's Grande Armée on Les médaillés de Sainte Hélène

Please do write in the comments below to let us know how you get on. Any further suggestions from you, Dear Readers would be most welcome below also.

Update: Read the excellent suggestions in the comments to this post.

©2015 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

FGB Free Clinic

Petit Soins

The summer hols are over and we are back to work; la rentrée is in effect. Refreshed, we thought we might try something new. Regularly, we receive requests to advise on or help with genealogical research. From these, we can see that many people are struggling with the same difficulties and really could benefit from sharing and discussing their research. Why not here?

Our proposal is that you, Dear Readers, send us a specific French genealogy question, brick wall, issue, or some such. We will respond here with how we would do the research, where we would look and in what way. Those Readers more in the know could comment with further suggestions. If this sounds like a good idea, prepare your query:

  • Identify a single, clear issue and formulate it into one French genealogy question
  • Prepare all of the relevant documentation you have already found to send by e-mail
  • Decide if you wish to be Monsieur or Madame Anonyme or if you wish to have your name appear with your query
  • Send it all to us at the address here (Do not try to fit it all into a comment on the page)

We will then upload your query and documents (so do think about protecting the privacy of living individuals when you send your work) and discuss the issue and the research possibilities, explaining what we would do and why.

This is an opportunity, Dear Readers.

©2015 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy