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How to use French census records

French census records (“recensements” in French) are a great resource if you want to know more about the living conditions of your French ancestors: how many children they had, what other family members they lived with, where their house was located… And also about their occupations and employers.

When were census records made

The first population censuses in France were conducted in 1791. However, it is rare to find census records from that period. For most towns, census records start in 1826 or 1831.

Censuses were held every 5 years, except at times of war:

  • the 1871 census was held in 1872 due to the Franco-Prussian war;
  • the 1916 and 1941 censuses were cancelled due to the First and Second World War.

The type of information that can be found in the census records has evolved through time but some information can always be found for each individual:

  • name and first name (women are sometimes listed under their maiden name, and sometimes under their married name);
  • occupation;
  • relationship to the head of household (wife, child, …);
  • marital status (single, married or widowed);
  • age or year of birth;
  • address (since 1851).

Some census records also give: the nationality, the place of birth, the type of employment (boss, employee, …) and the name of the employer.

1851 census record
1851 census record

Finding census records online

Census records can be found in the Archives Départementales of each departement. Most of these records have been digitized and they can be found online on the Archives Départementales websites.

And thanks to a change of law in december of 2018, census records of many French departements are now available online until 1936.

Tip: You can find the Archives Départementales websites by googling “archives départementales” + the name of the département where your ancestors lived.

Census records can be found under differents names: “recensements”, “recensements de la population” or sometimes “dénombrements de la population” or “listes nominatives du recensement”.

Unfortunately, census records have rarely been indexed. So, you will have to read all the pages in order to find your ancestors.

For small villages, this is not really a problem. But for big cities, it’s better to know the street where your ancestors lived before searching in the census records. This is an information that can often be found on birth, marriage or death records.

Some census records have also been indexed on Filae:

  • the 1872 census records;
  • some census records from 1901 to 1911.

An example

Here is an example of what I could learn about one of my ancestors’ family, thanks to the 1921 census records.

1921-french-census-record
1921 census records for Avize (Marne)

In 1921, the Méa family lived on the “Rempart du Midi” *** street in Avize (Marne). The family was composed of: Ernest Edouard MEA, his wife Clotilde and their 4 children ***.

Note: instead of repeating the same word on following lines, the census taker often wrote the abbreviation (for ditto) or a sort of wavy line. Here, the first child is marked as fils, and the line is used to indicate that the following persons are also the children of the head of household.

Both the husband and the wife were born in Tauxières (Marne) in 1868 and 1870 ***. And their four children were born in Avize, between 1898 and 1918 ***.

We also learn that all of them worked as wine-growers (vigneron) ***, except for the two youngest daughters who were too young to be employed. The name of their employer is indicated in the last column: it was the famous Champagne house Pommery ***.

Note: for people who didn’t have an occupation, the box will either be empty, or filled with sp or sans, meaning sans profession (“without occupation”).

Elise

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19 thoughts on “How to use French census records

  1. hi i am so glad something like this has appeared to help
    my father was born in Douai, Nord France but his father was english and mother was french and she passed away during his early years i was asking him about his family before he passed away and he had a serious fallout with his father as during ww2 he and his elder sister were left in france and brought up by his mums family can you please advice the best way to find out about my french side as my dad did not know his mothers maiden name thank you so much for this site im hoping it helps me in my future search.
    brenda hinsley

    1. Hi Brenda,
      thank you for your message. The best way to start would be to obtain your father’s birth certificate in Douai. In France, the maiden name of the mother was always written on birth certificates.
      Birth certificates for Douai are online on the website for the Archives of the Nord departement until 1918. If he was born after that date, you can obtain his birth certificate by writing to the town’s city hall.
      Elise

  2. Hi Elise, I would like to find out about my French father but don’t know wear to start! I will tell you what I know & I’m hoping that you can help.
    Father’s name – Henri Malfreye. Born Paris 04th December 1918
    (his father died at the end of the 1st world war, he had come from Canada to fight for France)
    (his mother, then a widow, moved to Bourth, Normandy with her small daughter & baby son)
    1939 Henri Malfreye joined the French army & was taken as POW in June 1940, he was sent to Hannover to a camp in Muhlenberg. He worked in the nearby factory, Hanomag doing war work.
    This is where he met my mother in 1942, they had a secret relationship until December 1944, when POW were sent back to France. I was born in January 1945. There was some correspondence in 1946, after that nothing.
    My mother married to England late 1948 , then in 1951 a lot of her letters were returned to her, she only had a poste resident address, never knew why.
    I would just love to know more about my french roots, but have no idea how to start! I don’t speak french, only English & German.
    Look forward to hearing from Kind regards Annegret Fidock

  3. Salut, Elise. Your blog is full of interesting and helpful information, and is wonderfully clear and easy to understand: well done! As you add more to it (which I hope you will), I think it will become an invaluable resource for those of us just beginning to delve into French genealogy. A word of warning, though, for anyone looking for census records of the Nord département – apparently the only year that has so far been digitized and put online is the one for 1906.

    A couple of other baffling words that non-Francophones may find in the census (sometimes called a ‘dénombrement’ as well as a ‘recensement’). One is ‘néant’, which you’ll see in the ‘profession’ box, and translates as ‘nil’ – like ‘sans’ or ‘sp’ it means the person has no profession. The other is ‘id’, which is an abbreviation for ‘idem’ – it means ‘the same’, and is another way of writing ‘ditto’ for a repeated word on the following line. ‘id’/’idem’ is also found in English (it’s really a Latin term) – but its usage is more technical, and you seldom come across it in British genealogical documents .

    Ossie

    P.S. Your English is perfect!

  4. Hi Elise,

    My great uncle, Jan Niemiec, was born on May 21, 1899, in Giedlarowa, Podkarpackie, Poland. He died on July 1, 1965, at the age of 66. Back in Poland, someone wrote on his birth record that he died in Blanc – Mesnil, France.

    Is there any way for me to find a census record for him in France? I’d like to learn, for instance, whether he was married, or had children.

    Thank you,

    Michael

    1. Hello,
      As you know his date and place of death, the best way to go would be to ask for his death certificate in the townhall of Blanc-Mesnil.
      On his death certificate, it should be mentioned if he was married.
      You can also find some census records for Le Blanc-Mesnil on the website of the archives of Seine Saint Denis (https://archives.seinesaintdenis.fr/search?preset=85&view=list), but they are not online after 1931, so it depends if he already lived there at the time.
      Elise

  5. Hi there,
    At what time of year were censuses recorded or did it vary, do you know? I’m thinking 1950s but I know they aren’t available yet.
    Thank you
    Fiona

    1. Hello, the time of year varied from one census to another. Usually, you can find the exact date of the census either on the first page of the census or in the last pages.
      The 1950s censuses are indeed not available online yet.
      Best regards,
      Elise

  6. I just came across your blog. I’ve been doing some French research for my niece. My French is very rusty due to lack of use. The abreveations that Ossie wrote are coming in very handy. I’m sure the websites you recomend will also come in handy. If it wasn’t so late at night, (1AM) I’d try out those sites right now. Thank you for you helpful information.

  7. Hello, I came across a census record for a french Canadian relative. One of the members in the houshold has the letters jine beside his name where it indicates his relationship to the head of the household. Do you have any idea what that stands for?
    Thanks

  8. I hope you don’t mind me asking but how easy is it to get records after 1945. Suppose you want to find the whereabouts of a family who you know left Paris in 1945 but you don’t know where they went.

    1. Unfortunately records after 1945 are not available online. So it can be quite difficult to get records after 1945. However, if you go to the archives, you can freely access census records until 1975. You can also obtain a copy of a death record freely without delay, but you have to know where to ask. If the people you are looking for died after 1970, you can use the INSEE death files in order to find their date and place of death. These files have been indexed on different webistes (Filae, Geneanet or https://arbre.app/insee/ for instance).

    1. Do you know where he would have lived at the time? If you do not know where to look it will be quite difficult, as there is no global indexation of all the French census records.
      You can try to search on Filae, where some census records between 1901 and 1911 have been indexed (but it’s mostly the 1906 census that has been indexed).

  9. Hi Elise,
    This is a wonderful blog, thank you. I have used the Oise recensements regularly as my mother’s family were all involved in the horseracing world in Chantilly and Maisons-Laffitte from 1831-1940. So many English families and they all intermarried – quite a jogsaw puzzle! One big stumbling block I have is that my great grandfather, Arthur Johnson, died in hospital in St Germaine-en-Laye, Yvelines Jun 1920. I believe he lived in Maisons-Laffitte (where his siblings lived) but cannot find him in the census. I have obtained his death certificate but would really love to find where he is buried. I contacted the vicar of the Holy Trinity Church at Viroflay (which seemed to be an English speaking Church) but he could not find any record of his burial – I’m not sure if they even have a cemetery there. I was wondering if the cemetery in Maison Laffitte has an English section like the Bois Bourillon? I am sorry to ask you but I don’t know what else to do.
    There is a telephone number (Conservateur du cimetière Tél/fax 01 34 93 11 64 ou 06 43 43 29 82) for the Maison Laffitte Cimetiere but my French is certainly not good enough to phone them! Would you know if there is an email address to which I could try to write please as I cannot find one? Any other suggestions as to where I should look would be marvellous.
    Carolyn

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