Prior to the French Revolution France was divided into provinces, now known as regions. Then in 1789 the new government reorganised France into Territorial Divisions (departements). There are 100 Departments in France, 96 within its borders and 4 overseas. Each department has its own archive and most important Genealogical records are kept at these departmental archives. Records are also kept at local town halls so it is important to have a starting town or department.
The French census is taken every 5 years beginning in 1836 (earlier in some communities) which contain name of all members living in a household, dates and places of birth, nationality and occupation. However these are not indexed and are rarely used in French Genealogy as locating names of households are notoriously difficult without a street address.
Birth, Death and Marriage records mainly date from 1792. Known in France as Registres d’état-civil (records of civil registration) they are held at the Le Mairie (town hall) where the event took place. The department archives hold duplicates of these after 100 years. The registers include wide margins which often records extensive information on an individual. A birth record may hold margin notes including marriage date, date of death and the place the event took place. Many of these are now online free of charge along with other departmental archives and Decennial Tables (a ten year alphabetical index from 1793, of births, marriages and deaths registered by the Mairie), although many are images of the original books and are not searchable, (no more time consuming than searching microfilms and you can do it from home!) Copies of civil records can be ordered from the local Mairie. Any records less than 100 years old are not available to the public due to French privacy laws and you will need to contact the local Mairie to make any requests.
Outside of France the best source of these civil records is the Family History Library in Salt Lake City who have microfilmed civil records of about half of the Departments in France up to 1870 and Decennial Indexes for nearly every town in France. You can search for which microfilms are held online at the Family History Cataloug.
Prior to 1792 parish registers are the most valuable genealogy resources. In France these date back to as early as 1334, these contain as a minimum, the names of people involved, date of even and sometimes parents’ names, ages, occupations and witnesses. Parish registers prior to 1792 are held by the Archives Department ales, although some small parish churches still retain these old registers. Some parishes no longer exist and now belong to a neighbouring town so always check the neighbouring parish if you cannot locate a record. Most departmental archives will not perform parish record research for you but many of these records are now available on line at the Family History Library and other sources.
Parish records after 1793 are held by the parish and you will need to contact the local Diocese who is often happy to help for a small donation.
France also holds well maintained cemeteries. Cemetery management in France is seen as a “public concern” and so legible inscriptions survive from as early as the 18th century. Cemetery records again can be found at the local town hall.
French Military records can be located at the Army and Naval Historical Services in Vincennes, France and records survive from the 17th Century and can include names of a serviceman’s wife, children marriage and names and addresses of next of kin. However, French privacy laws mean these are not accessible to the public from 120 years of the soldier’s birth, so are rarely used in French genealogy.
Geneanet.org (search birth, death, marriage by department) http://www.geneanet.org/archives
French civil and Parish Records: http://www.jeanlouis-garret.fr/actes/
French National Archives: http://www.archivesnationales.culture.gouv.fr/
Map of French Departments: http://www.lost-in-france.com/living-in-france/life/517-french-departments
Cyndi’s List - http://www.cyndislist.com/