It been a long while since I took my high school French, and that was a pun of the phrase used in detective novels, "cherchez la femme" (Find the lady).
In a more serious vein, we can take a look at what French records might hold as far as family history goes. I should note that while I do have some French background, it is Alsatian (near Germany), and there is a whole lot of territory which comprises France - the entire country. What I know about French research deals most with that eastern border with Germany. There are a number of countries which border France (England, across the English Channel, which the French know as La Manche (the sleeve), Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Andorra and Spain. And of course the Swiss area has a smattering of tongues spoke there. The four national languages of Switzerland are German, French, Italian, and Romansh, with French comprising about 20 percent of the country.)
As always, this is meant to be an overview and not a detailed guide to in-depth research. Plus, there are almost always many records that exist, but have not yet been filmed or put online.
A bit of background is in order. Unlike many countries where a few big migrations accounted for the majority of the immigrants to North America, French-speaking people came over a much longer time. There were Huguenots (Protestant) French in Florida and the Carolinas as early as the late 1500s. The vast majority of vital records were kept in churches until the Revolution in 1792. The LDS Family History Library does have about 60 per cent of all French parishes on microfilm. So, one can find vital records of genealogical significance in church records; notarial records (wills, property divisions etc.); military records; and also emigration records. As far as censuses are concerned, they were taken but as of this writing do not seem to have been microfilmed or indexed, which make them very difficult to find or use.
There is a great new website that I came upon which has the actual images of the parish registers to view online. It is known as ADELOCH. At the time of this writing they are not indexed, but they include the following information in the church registers (taken from the French –language online web pages): baptisms, marriages, and burials from the parish registers (Catholic and Protestant), with indexes in the books; 10-year tables (indexes); births, marriages, and deaths from civil registers, and Jewish declarations of descent as well. These are all in French (or German or Latin) and are flash–based online images. One can also see them in a non-flash browser. Remember that the Revolutionary calendar was in use in France, and it starts with Year One, with a number of different month names. The French Revolutionary Calendar (or Republican Calendar) was officially adopted in France on October 24, 1793 and abolished on 1 January 1806. There were even differences in time-keeping. A good detailed explication of this is given at: Wikipedia: French Republican Calendar.
For example, in ADELOCH, the tiny village of Mietesheim has 427 different online books covering 1655 to 1902. I could not see a way to do a cross-search through all of them for a name, called a "federated search" by librarians. Sample headings are "Paroisse catholique: annexe de Bitschhoffen et Pfaffenhoffen." These are the Catholic parish registers, which also include those two last-named nearby villages. There are also the "Paroisse protestante: a pour annexes Mertzwiller, épisodiquement Griesbach et Uttenhoffen," which are the Protestant (Lutheran) records and indexes for Mietesheim, Griesbach, and Uttenhoffen. The latest ones are in Fraktur type German, while earlier ones are handwritten in French and Latin as well. Interlineated in them is the description of how these were hidden during the Thirty Years War, which raged across the region from 1618-1648. These particular books were hidden under some straw in a barn for the duration, and that is written in the post-war pastor's hand.
There is another way to get access to such research materials. A while ago (in the Stone Age, before the invention of the Internet), I wrote a letter to the Archives Departementales of Alsace in Strasbourg,, saying in my high school French that I was an American librarian doing research on that village of Mietesheim. Did they have any printed reference that they could send me about books or articles, etc., dealing with that area? Yes, they replied. I put in an inter-library loan request for those titles – which were in the New York Public Library! I got them within a week. Yes, they were in French and German, but since I can read them both, they were quite interesting. This was especially so since I have a "colorful" ancestor who was so bad that he is mentioned by name in the articles (He was disciplined by being tied to a tree in the cemetery, but again that‘s another story).
These kinds of discoveries are what can flesh out the family and add more to the overall family history.
Again, in Alsace, little villages are quite close to one another and it is common to see people moving from one to another and having vital records in several places. If you are not familiar with an area, get a good map (or get used to using Google Earth or something like it) to see where places are in relation to one another. Someone back in the 1800s is not likely to be from Alsace and work in Paris or Marseilles (although someone had to be on boats and trains). Depending on how close to the national border they were they could easily marry someone from another country -- or, being on that German border, from the next town over on the other side of the Rhine.
It is far more likely that your ancestors of modest means are in the little parish registers than in large history books. So concentrate on the little sources like parish records, perhaps tax records, emigration records, and legal records, including property. Guild records might be a source if they were skilled trades people. If they were day workers, like mine were, there's not a whole to be found save for vital records and immigration records. Also remember that France borders on the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, meaning there may be emigration records from those ports that have been preserved. In fact, I found one of my German emigrants who had travelled across France and left from the Atlantic port of Le Havre, instead of going down the Rhine to Holland, which his brothers had done a few years earlier.
Familysearch.org has a number of good resources for doing French research. On the home page under the "Learn" tab, a search for France brings up over 1600 hits; on the free section of Ancestry.com, over 300 articles appear.
Speaking of French, also remember that New France was in North America, and, therefore, family may have moved from continental Europe to North America such as Canada and Louisiana. But that, too, is grist for another time. Albeit it is good to mention the Drouin Collection. It is the most comprehensive collection of French-Canadian and Quebec historical records in existence, spanning 346 years from 1621 to 1967. The collection includes 17 million baptisms, marriage and burial records, and also a compilation of church records from all denominations in Ontario, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and various New England states.
It is currently available on CD to purchase, but also is found on Ancestry.com at: Quebec Vital & Church Records, The Drouin Collection. Ancestry's blurb and the info page for the collections reads: "In 1634, Zacharie Cloutier, a French carpenter, left his home country to settle New France and became one of the most influential pioneers of French Canada. By 1800, Cloutier's descendants numbered nearly 11,000. The singers Madonna and Celine Dion and also Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, are all descendants of the Cloutier line." The Drouin collection is also available elsewhere. There are several societies in Canada and in the United States that have the microfilms available to their members, including the first society to own the films in the United States, the American-French Genealogical Society (AFGS)in Woonsocket, Rhode Island. The New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston was the first to buy a copy of these 2400 reels of microfilm from AFGS, quickly followed by the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
So, French descent can lead you to France itself, to their colonies and settlements (do not forget the Cajuns (Acadians), who are mostly located in southern Louisiana and who are descended from French Canadians. They speak an archaic form of French.) There is far more to learn about French research. In doing some research for this short article I found that the online archives for Meurthe et Moselle (in Nancy) are going to go free in January 2012. Since there are over 100 departments (basically equivalent to states) in France there are a lot of places to look for records.
Recommended books and websites:
Family Tree Guide Book to Europe, (Erin Nevius and the editors of Family Tree Magazine).
French Genealogy & Family History - links to other sources
American French Genealogical Society: Genealogy Links - links to other sources
The French Genealogy Blog - a blog dealing with French research.
France Genealogy Links - a collection of useful links.
Cyndi's List: France - a standard starting website.
France Events and Time Periods - useful links to French research from the Family History Centers.
Cercle Généalogique de Pirmasens - a society located in Germany, but on the French border. Good example of a regional society overseas.
Archives départementales du Bas-Rhin - The English language page for the Departmental (State) Archives in Strasbourg.