While researching my biography of Charles Deville Wells, “The Man who Broke the Bank”, I needed to consult birth, marriage and death registers , as well as census records, in France.
I was already reasonably familiar with the system in Britain, where such information is easily available on the internet via websites including FreeBMD, Ancestry, and Findmypast. But the equivalent resources in France are less easy to use. To begin with, records are not held centrally. This means that you will usually need to know the place where the birth, marriage or death took place. This information may not be available, which complicates matters considerably.
The second major stumbling block is that, while the likes of Ancestry provide easy-to-search databases of the British records online, the most you are likely to find in France is a digitised online image of an original register or census document. This can involve a lot of searching. Charles Deville Wells and his family group lived at Quimper, Brittany, for a time. The town had some 10,000 inhabitants and to find them involved me in a page-by-page search of a schedule extending to just over 300 pages listing them all. Sod’s Law dictated, needless to say, that the entry I wanted was eventually found on page 299!
However, do not be discouraged. The system is quite easy to use once one has got over the problem of knowing where to look. The records are handwritten but are generally completed in beautifully-formed script by some clerk of long ago. And it is possible to access and download the original images free of charge*, which is a very significant advantage over the UK system. (*Subject to terms and conditions, no doubt!)
I found it useful in the beginning to consult the website of the Latter-Day Saints (the Mormons), which provides a vast amount of family research material in general, and a comprehensive beginner’s guide to genealogy in France.
You can try a search on Ancestry, selecting France as the area of interest: you may or may not find what you are looking for, as the collections are not as comprehensive as those relating to Britain or the USA, for example.
Another potentially very useful resource is the Geneanet site, based in France. Many French people post their family trees here, and digitised versions of many registers are now available, with more appearing regularly. It was here that I found one person vital to my book, having failed to locate her elsewhere.