Research in France: Understanding the Administrative Divisions

When I first began researching my ancestors many years ago, I often came across a confusing mixture of place names for their origins in France. Many of the place names referenced a region that was not found on any current French map. Once I began to seriously research the records in France, I realized that records were not available under the names of these regions. It was then that I took the opportunity to understand the evolution of place names in France. Although the transformation of the French administrative regions is much more complex than I've noted here, this page should provide you with a basic knowledge that will allow you to pursue your research in our native country.

Many of the documents that Louisiana genealogists pursue in search of their French lineage date to pre-1790 - a very important year in the evolution of French place names. As a result, many of these documents indicate that the ancestor was from a particular région or province such as Bourgogne (or Burgundy in English). These provinces had evolved over the centuries via the influence of the aristocratic, social and political system established in France from approximately the 14th century to the 18th century. Within these provinces existed the smallest administrative units: the parishes on a religious level and the seigneuries on both fiscal and judiciary levels.

Here is a list of the 'Ancien Régime' or ancient provinces:

Île-de-France (Paris)
Berry (Bourges)
Orléanais (Orléans)
Normandy (Rouen)
Languedoc (Toulouse)
Lyonnais (Lyon)
Dauphiné (Grenoble)
Champagne (Troyes)
Aunis (La Rochelle)
Saintonge (Saintes)
Poitou (Poitiers)
Guyenne and Gascony (Bordeaux)
Burgundy (Dijon)
Picardy (Amiens)
Anjou (Angers)
Provence (Aix-en-Provence)
Angoumois (Angoulême)
Bourbonnais (Moulins)
Marche (Guéret)
Brittany (Rennes)
Maine (Le Mans)
Touraine (Tours)
Limousin (Limoges)
Foix (Foix)
Auvergne (Clermont-Ferrand)
Béarn (Pau)
Alsace (Strasbourg, cons. souv. in Colmar)
Artois (Arras)
Roussillon (Perpignan)
Flanders and Hainaut (Lille parlement in Douai)
Franche-Comté (Besançon)
Lorraine (Nancy)
Corsica (off map, Ajaccio, cons. souv. in Bastia)
Nivernais (Nevers)
Comtat Venaissin, a Papal fief (Avignon)
Imperial Free City of Mulhouse
Savoy, a Sardinian fief
Nice, a Sardinian fief
Montbéliard, a fief of Württemberg
Trois-Évêchés (Metz, Toul and Verdun)
Dombes (Trévoux)
Navarre (Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port)
Soule (Mauléon)
Bigorre (Tarbes)
Beaujolais (Beaujeu)
Bresse (Bourg)
Perche (Mortagne-au-Perche)

Prior to 1790, France "remained a patchwork of local privileges and historical differences, and the arbitrary power of the monarch was in fact much limited by historic and regional particularities" (Link). In that year, French revolutionaries decided to choose the existing 32,000 French religious parishes as the only basic administrative units and to abolish seigneuries. In order to simplify the whole architecture of larger units, such as French provinces used on a military level, French élections and généralités on a fiscal level, and French bailliages and parlements on a judiciary level, the French revolutionaries decided to merge all those different larger units into only one with about the same geographic area. These were to be called 'departments'. For the sake of simplicity, I like to compare French departments to the individual states within the U.S.

At the end of 1792, they also decided to create a new type of basic administrative unit, called 'communes', with the very same limits as the old parishes. The only difference was that major cities that included several religious parishes were usually formed into one single commune. A commune can be compared to our U.S. cities and towns. Although there are now six administrative levels in France today, a genealogist should note that departments and communes are the two most important administrative levels in France today.

Here are the 6 administrative levels in France. At each level, an entity is normally divided into several entities of the next lower level:

la République
les Régions (22) - Similiar to regions in the U.S. such as the southeast, northwest, etc.
les départements (96) - Similiar to states in the U.S. such as the Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, etc.
les arrondissements (326) - Translates to the English word 'district'
les cantons - chief purpose is to serve as constituencies for the election of the members of the representative assembly in each department
les communes - Towns, cities, hamlets

Each department is assigned a 2-digit number (some French terrorities have a 3-digit assignment). These are also the first two digits on the license plates and the first two digits of the postal codes.

The departments are grouped into regions with each region containing approximately 2-13 departments. Each French region can be compared to regions in the U.S. such as the southeast, northwest or mid-west although the French region names are not related to their physical placement on the map as are those in the U.S. (such as north, south, east or west).

Here is a list of the current regions and the departments within those regions. (The French regions changed effective 1/1/2016. I have made the changes here but not, necessarily, on my individual family pages in my lineage; those are being correctly as I find them.) The regions are in bold:

Grand Est
08 Ardennes
10 Aube
51 Marne
52 Haute-Marne
54 Meurthe-et-Moselle
55 Meuse
57 Moselle
67 Bas-Rhin
68 Haut-Rhin
88 Vosges
16 Charente
17 Charente-Maritime>br> 19 Corrèze
23 Creuse
24 Dordogne
33 Gironde
40 Landes
47 Lot-et-Garonne
64 Pyrénées-Atlantiques
79 Deux-Sèvres
86 Vienne
87 Haute-Vienne
01 Ain
03 Allier
07 Ardèche
15 Cantal
26 Drôme
38 Isère
42 Loire
43 Haute-Loire
63 Puy-de-Dôme
69 Rhône
73 Savoie
74 Haute-Savoie
21 Côte-d'Or
25 Doubs
39 Jura
58 Nièvre
70 Haute-Saône
71 Saône-et-Loire
89 Yonne
90 Territoire de Belfort
Brittany (Bretagne)
22 Côtes-d'Armor
29 Finistère
35 Ille-et-Vilaine
56 Morbihan
Centre-Val de Loire
18 Cher
28 Eure-et-Loir
36 Indre
37 Indre-et-Loire
41 Loir-et-Cher
45 Loiret
Corsica (Corse)
2A Corse-du-Sud
2B Haute-Corse
75 Paris
77 Seine-et-Marne
78 Yvelines
91 Essonne
92 Hauts-de-Seine
93 Seine-Saint-Denis
94 Val-de-Marne
95 Val-d'Oise
09 Ariège
11 Aude
12 Aveyron
30 Gard
31 Haute-Garonne
32 Gers
34 Hérault
46 Lot
48 Lozère
65 Hautes-Pyrénées
66 Pyrénées-Orientales
81 Tarn
82 Tarn-et-Garonne
02 Aisne
59 Nord
60 Oise
62 Pas-de-Calais
80 Somme
Normandie (Normandy)
14 Calvados
27 Eure
50 Manche
61 Orne
76 Seine-Maritime
Pays-de-la-Loire (Loire Country)
44 Loire-Atlantique
49 Maine-et-Loire
53 Mayenne
72 Sarthe
85 Vendée
Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur
04 Alpes-de-Haute-Provence
05 Hautes-Alpes
06 Alpes-Maritimes
13 Bouches-du-Rhône
83 Var
84 Vaucluse
Overseas departments
(the following are both departments and regions)
971 Guadeloupe
972 Martinique
973 French Guiana
974 Réunion
976 Mayotte
Overseas collectivities
975 Saint-Pierre and Miquelon
977 Saint-Barthélemy
978 Saint-Martin
986 Wallis and Futuna
987 French Polynesia
Sui generis collectivity
988 New Caledonia
Overseas territory
984 French Southern and Antarctic Territories (including France's Antarctic claim and the Scattered Islands in the Indian Ocean)
989 Clipperton Island

In order to find sacramental records in France, you must know the name of the modern department in which the commune resides because the records are maintained by the archives of each department. Therefore, I now document all French (France) genealogical events in my personal database by the commune and department such as La Rochelle (Charente-Maritime), France and reference the original province only if I need to do so. Anyone familiar with my book - Long Journey Home - will recognize this format although I have not corrected all pages of this website to reflect the format. I have just added the region names (in this case, Poitou-Charente) to each commune/department in my database but my website does not yet reflect it - ex: La Rochelle (Charente-Maritime)(Poitou-Charente), France.

Additional Reading:

Provinces of France

Administrative Divisions of France

Regions of France

History of the French Communes

Hope this was helpful!

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