Why I love forever-changing French birth certificates

Regularly ordering new copies is a pain in the dossier - but there's smart method in French bureaucratic madness, and realising it changes the way you think about certificates forever, writes Samantha David

I found myself explaining French birth certificates to a friend recently, and suddenly realised how brilliant they are.

True enough, it is a pain being required to get a new copy of your birth certificate every time you have to complete a dossier.

And why should you, when your birthday is hardly going to change? You’re not suddenly going to get new parents!

What is the point of demanding a copy that is less than three months old, as French paperwork often does?

All that is true when it comes to UK birth certificates, which never change. But in France a birth certificate can change because as you go through life, other events are added to it – the name should really be more a “life certificate”.

If you are adopted, or placed under someone’s guardianship, if you get married, have a baby, adopt someone, get divorced, it’s all there. So too are any Pacs contracts or dissolutions, and various other life events. 

So French birth certificates can and do change throughout a lifetime, which is why a new copy of your birth certificate is required each time you complete a dossier.

You used to have to send a self-addressed envelope to the commune where your birth was registered but, with many communes joining an online scheme on the government official site service-public.fr, it is faster and easier (and free).

Most officials know that UK birth certificates do not change and will accept a straightforward photocopy. In the past, the secretary in our local mairie has photocopied UK birth certificates and then dated, stamped and signed the copies for use in France to get round any fuss.

However, if you obtain French nationality, you will have a French birth certificate and have to jump though the hoops, just like everyone else.

You can ask for a copie intégrale, which includes all information known about you, plus your parents, plus mentions marginales. The latter (literally “things written in the margin”) includes recognising a child (eg. in the case of an unmarried father), marriage, divorce, Pacs, death, change of first or surname, or acquisition of French nationality. 

An extrait avec filiation includes the above but is not necessarily a photocopy (the information could be re-typed on to another form). An extrait sans filiation excludes inform-ation about your parents.

The brilliant thing about them is that they record an entire life, which is particularly important for women. When French women get married, it is recorded on their birth certificate, making it easy to trace their lives through official records.

In the UK, the traces of women often disappear on the date of their marriage, and it can be impossible to find out what happened to them.
Unless they change their names for some other reason, tracing the lives of men is easier.

In France, it is always possible to trace a woman’s entire life because it is there in black and white on her birth certificate.

It also makes it hard for someone to hide previous marriages, divorces, children etc, as these show as soon as a birth certificate is required.

I think the UK should follow the French and make “birth certificates” last all your life!

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