When you want to build a family tree with French ancestors, the place to start is almost always civil registration or parish records. They are the most reliable records, and most of them are accessible online.
If you know the place and date
If you know the date and place of birth of your French ancestor, you should start by looking for his birth record. You will find it in different types of archives depending on the date:
- for a birth after 1900 or 1910, the records will rarely be online. Most of the time you will have to write to the town’s city hall (mairie) to get a copy of the birth certificate;
- for a birth between 1793 and the 1900s, the birth will have been recorded in civil registration (état civil) and you will be able to find it online for almost any place in France;
- for a birth before 1793, you should look for a baptismal record in parish records (registres paroissiaux). There was no civil registration yet: all births were recorded only by the parish. Most of these records can also be found online.
Note that most parish records start around the end of the 17th century. Sometimes, you can go a little further but many records have been lost before this time.
Civil registration and parish records are both kept by departmental archives (Archives Départementales). Most of these records have been digitized and can now be found online, except for some rare départements.
To find online records for your ancestor’s hometown, you will have to start by finding out in which department this town was (Wikipedia will be helpful for that). Then you will have to look for the website of this department’s archives. You can find a list of French archives websites on my French blog, here.
In each department, the records are organized by town. Most of the time, you will find a search form which will enable you to look for a town and a date (or a period), and then access the records.
If you know the place but not the date
If you know the place but not the exact date of an event in the 19th or 20th century, you can also use the tables décennales: tables which sum up all births, deaths and weddings in alphabetical order for a 10-year period for each town.
These tables appeared only with civil registration, i.e. in 1793. This is why tables cover a ten-year period starting in a year ending with three (for example, the table shown above covers the years from 1893 to 1902). These tables have been digitized along with civil registration.
Most of the time there are no such tables for parish records in the 18th century or before. However, sometimes, you can find alphabetical or chronological tables for parish records. This is particularly helpful for big cities. If they exist, these tables will have been digitized along with parish records.
Otherwise, the best option is to read all the records for a given period.
If you do not feel like reading the records (or if you have difficulties understanding the handwriting), you can also use the websites presented below.
And what if you do not know the place?
When you do not know the exact place of an event, doing research in France is always a bit difficult. This is why you should always start by searching as much information as possible on your ancestor in the country where he/she arrived.
For a long time, there was no website where you could find all archives from all départements. Filae (a private company) has started filling this void by concatenating and indexing 19th century records from all départements.
These indexed records can be very helpful if you are looking for a record for which you do not know the exact place and date. However, they are not complete: the focus has been put on the 19th century (from 1800 to 1900), and only for départements which already had online records (Moselle and Gard are still missing, for instance). But they are now starting to index parish records from the 18th century, so it should soon be more complete.
You can also find census records and various other records on this site. But all resources are not available there, so you should always go back to the Archives Départementales website to look for more information.
If you do not know the exact place and date of birth of your ancestor, another helpful website is Geneanet. It has a huge database of family trees, and various indexed records, uploaded by users. It is, by far, the most popular genealogy website in France. You should be able to find many clues for your research on this site. However, as it is based on online trees and data offered by users, there can be mistakes. So it is always better to go back to Archives Départementales website to look directly at the records.