Naturalization Files in France

For those whose pastime is diving into life stories, the archival traces left by naturalization processes offer a fine playing field. They can be consulted at the Archives nationales site at Pierrefitte-sur-Seine. Naturalization files become communicable 50 years after the date of the most recent document contained in the file, with special dispensation required to consult non-communicable files. These files offer a striking view of the trajectories of immigrants who came to France throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Item after item, they sketch out the sometimes chaotic paths taken during the professional, geographical, military, and matrimonial journeys pursued by applicants for French nationality, in addition to their social and kinship networks. These incomplete puzzles can help reconstruct an existence as it was related for and by the French administration, within a highly specific context. Over one hundred individuals born in Lubartów were naturalized in France between 1899 and the late 1950s. What information do their files contain? How should it be used? What to say about it? This page endeavors to contribute to these questions.

Photographs of the Osinskis in David Osinski’s naturalization file, AN 21613X50 © Archives nationales France, all rights reserved

Forms Changing with the Legislation

The forms and items required to apply for French nationality differed depending on the application’s date of submission, with the material forms of applications also evolving. Initially written on a separate sheet of paper, the applications were then submitted on printed forms beginning in the 1840s.[1]On the Ancien régime, see Peter Sahlins, “La nationalité avant la lettre : les pratiques de … Continue reading Identification photos for applicants appeared only after World War II. Forms changed, as did the legislation establishing the methods for acquiring French nationality.[2]On this topic see Patrick Weil, Qu’est-ce qu’un Français ? Histoire de la nationalité … Continue reading

When the Civil Code was adopted in 1803, French nationality was ascribed at birth and transmitted by descent. However, if certain conditions were met, a foreigner could be granted “admis à domicile” status, and enjoy the same civil rights as French citizens, without being subject to military obligations. On December 3, 1849, naturalization became an act of national sovereignty entrusted to the executive branch, which submitted the applicant to a series of conditions; the law of February 7, 1851 introduced the principle of “dual jus soli,” according to which any individual born in France of a foreign parent born in France is considered French, unless they specifically request to remain a foreigner. However, it was the law of June 26, 1889 that broadened access to French nationality: the father of a minor child born in France could henceforth request for their child to become French “par déclaration” (by declaration), and the children born in France from a parent born in France could no longer repudiate French nationality. On August 10, 1927, a new law on nationality responded to the demands of a burgeoning populationist movement, which sought to combat the specter of French “demographic decline” at any cost. Since the late nineteenth century, powerful pro-natalist organizations such as l’Alliance nationale pour l’accroissement de la population française (National Alliance for the Growth of the French Population) were active regarding this topic, under the banner of patriotism. It was also a military issue, as military service, which was limited to the French since 1872, became compulsory in 1905. As diplomatic tensions grew in Europe, the privilege of exempted foreigners became unacceptable. The one and a half million French deaths during the Great War heightened fears of a “distressing crisis of the French birth rate,” as explained at the Chambre de députés (Chamber of Deputies) by radical member Alain Mallarmé, the rapporteur for the law of 1927 on nationality. This law expanded the possibility of naturalization, which could now be obtained after three years of residence on French soil, and not ten years as previously.[3]Claire Zalc, “1927 : naturaliser,” in Patrick Boucheron (ed.), Histoire mondiale de la France, … Continue reading The annual volume of naturalizations doubled the following year, with over 650,000 individuals acquiring French nationality by decree between 1927 and 1940.

This massive naturalization effort was followed by a process—equally unprecedented in nature and scope—of denaturalizations initiated under the Vichy regime in accordance with the law of July 22, 1940, which was adopted just twelve days after Marshall Pétain’s ascension to the head of the État français (French State). This law, which was improperly called a law, for the National Assembly had been dissolved on July 10, 1940 and never voted on it, ordered the systematic revision of all naturalizations since 1927. The revision was supposed to be carried out in light of new criteria for Frenchness, which the law refrained from clarifying. Adopted six week before the first Jewish Statute of October 3, 1940, it could not make any reference to a racial criterion that had no legal existence yet. The law only provided for naturalizations to be reviewed by the ad hoc Commission de révision des naturalisations (Commission for the Review of Naturalization). Over 15,000 individuals were denaturalized by Vichy,[4]Claire Zalc, Dénaturalisés. Les retraits de nationalité sous Vichy, Paris, Seuil, 2016. of whom five were born in Lubartów, including David Bienenfeld.

Cover of the naturalization application submitted by David Bienenfeld © Archives nationales France, all rights reserved

In the aftermath of World War II, the ordinance of October 19, 1945 created the first Code de nationalité française (Code of French Nationality), which submitted the naturalized individual to certain restrictions, especially of a political order. It established the conditions for both naturalization and reintegration: the individual had to be an adult, and prove continued residence in France during the five years preceding the application, instead of the three years required by the law of 1927. Conditions relating to morality, linguistic assimilation, and state of health were also added. Fathers with three legitimate minor children, voluntary enlistees, veterans of the two world wars, and members of the resistance were exempted from the 5-year residency requirement.[5]Alexis Spire, Étrangers à la carte. L’administration de l’immigration en France (1945-1975), … Continue reading The ordinance was the basis for policy on the acquisition of French nationality by decree until the 1980s. With the electoral rise of the far-right, amid a context of growing politicization of nationality-related issues, various reforms were initiated depending on changes in power. One example is the law of July 22, 1993, which eliminated the automatic acquisition of nationality for youth born in France of foreign parents, by requiring them to express their desire to become French. The law was repealed in 1998. These years were marked by a pronounced “legislative madness.”

Heterogeneous Supporting Documents Depending on the Process

Naturalization practices evolved over time, but also across space. The processing and examination of applications varied, as did requirements.[6]Mary D. Lewis, Les frontières de la République. Immigration et limites de l’universalisme en … Continue reading In Marseille, the medical certificate emerged in the 1930s as an essential criterion in the examination of naturalization applications, in an effort to assess physical potential with a view to military enlistment; in the Rhône, applicants were asked to complete a dictation exercise in order to verify their “command” of the language.[7]See the examples reproduced in the exhibition catalog, Claire Zalc, Nanette Snoep, Hélène … Continue reading

The files, often numbering around fifty pages, include both forms and non-standardized items, and are of varying form and execution. According to the archival principle of respect des fonds, which proposes maintaining intact or restoring the internal classification of documents within a file created by the producer, these applications, which are the first document in chronological order, appear at the very end of the file. These files bear numerous traces of a country’s procedures of inclusion and subsequent exclusion, traces that sometimes extend across multiple decades: application submission, deferment, second application, naturalization, withdrawal of nationality, reexamination of the file, and requests for information by children in contexts of harsher nationality law, among others. They always include at least one 4-page personal information note completed upon submission of the application, often at the local commissariat (police precinct) or prefecture. The answers to the questions asked echo the same administrative language, a stereotypical grammar of being French that resonates for anyone who has completed hundreds of identical questionnaires. The applicant “wishes to settle definitively in France,” regularly frequents “French people,” and “has adopted our customs.”

A hand-written request by the applicant on a separate sheet of paper appears almost systematically during the interwar period. This declarative source is invaluable in grasping how foreigners presented themselves, and the strategies they used in their relations with various administrations. For example, David Bienenfeld composed his on a typewriter, wrote in the third person, and expounded over two pages why he “would like to become French like his two uncles, and obtain the same status for his wife and children.” Others were less articulate, such as Joseph Langman, who limited himself to requesting his “naturalization as French” in September 1924.

The note was accompanied by a series of supporting items such as civil registry documents, proof of residence in France, criminal record declaration, tax status form, and medical certificate of good health, and sometimes included miscellaneous documents such as letters of support from important persons, recommendations, evidence of employment, etc.

Joseph Langman’s naturalization application, 31374X24 © Archives nationales France, all rights reserved

The Course of Applications Among Administrations

Based on these documents, the police commissioner or mayor, depending on the case, emitted his “avis” (opinion), before transferring the application to the prefecture for further investigation, which was essentially devoted to assessing the applicant’s “loyalty.” A first copy of the file was conserved by the bureau des étrangers (office for foreigners) at the local prefecture, and can often be found in departmental archival collections. It is important to emphasize this local filter in the transmission of files, as the prefecture’s agents could decide not to transmit them to the ministry in charge of nationality.[8]Ministry of Justice until 1945, Ministry of Health and Population after 1945, and Ministry of the … Continue reading This was not a marginal phenomenon, as in Paris nearly 40% of applications in the 1930s were blocked at the prefectural level.[9]Weil, Qu’est-ce qu’un Français ?, p. 136.

When it was sent to central authorities, it was examined by agents of the ministry, with these traces quite often being conserved in the file as well. They can be identified by their pink color. The agent, also known as the rédacteur (drafter), drafted a summary on these sheets, followed by a substantiated proposal involving the naturalization decision, and where applicable the amount of the droits du sceau (processing fee). Naturalization was a profitable affair for the state, as the fee fluctuated between 1,300 and 2,000 francs during the interwar period, at a time when the monthly income of applicants was no more than 1,000 francs.[10]Alexis Spire, “Faire payer les étrangers. L’avenir d’une vieille idée,” Plein Droit, … Continue reading This considerable sum could be reduced depending on resources, as less than 10% of those naturalized paid the full amount of the droits de sceau during the interwar period.

Decision to defer issued by the bureau du Sceau (Bureau of Seals), Frydman file, BB/11/11112/69854X28 © Archives nationales France, all rights reserved

The time period between an initial application and examination by central services varied between a few months and a few years, especially in cases of deferral. Over one request out of five, including those transmitted to the Ministry of Justice between 1927 and 1940, were not accepted—16% were refused and 6% were deferred and not pursued—while 5% were decreed only after World War II.[11]Percentages from a sample of 930 open files: … Continue reading

Traces of Reviews Under Vichy

While some files end with mention of the decree granting French nationality, for others history repeated itself, especially under Vichy.[12]On these topics see Zalc, Dénaturalisés. Examination by the Commission de révision des naturalisations, which began work in September 1940, left traces in the files: a small slip of paper on “Commission de révision des naturalisations” letterhead, approximately 12 by 18 centimeters, was almost systematically stapled or glued on the back of the file folder containing it.  It indicates the date of examination by the Commission and its avis, with the reasons for this avis sometimes appearing in ink in the margins.

The Bienenfeld file bears the mention “Israélite/Pas d’intérêt national” (Israelite/No national interest). In fact, the same files that were used for inclusion formed the basis for the process of exclusion from French nationality. New documents were sometimes produced during these reviews: a sheet of paper, always pink, on Bureau du Sceau letterhead, provides a hand-written summary of the key information contained in the file. Investigations were quite often requested from various administrations in order to update the data, with status of military service, new addresses, and reports for investigations conducted by prefectural services being attached. Sometimes there are also letters appealing denaturalization decisions.

Slip from the Commission for the Review of Naturalization attached to the Bienenfeld file folder © AN BB/11/10786 art. 53552X28

Multiple Readings

A naturalization file can be grasped in numerous ways. It firstly provides rare descriptive material—narrative and sometimes even intimate—that can help reconstruct the trajectories of individuals and families, such as their professional career, successive addresses, economic situation, wartime occupation and situation, and family and social insertion. The applicant had to declare the various addresses he or she frequented, thereby allowing us to identify the places they travelled through during World War II, often in secret. This information can help provide a detailed and accurate reconstitution of migratory paths. The naturalization applicant was also required to disclose information regarding their parents and siblings, which can be used to inscribe them within kinship networks.

Excerpt from the naturalization application form submitted by Max Lerner © all rights reserved

If the archival material may be moving and fascinating, it is because the file dramatizes the inaugural moment of the application, whose forms varied depending on the period. This application initiated a process characterized by a “genuine political and social magic trick,” to use Abdelmalek Sayad’s phrase, one whose “apparent function was to make individuals into the naturals of a country, society, and nation, who were not that but wanted to be.”[13]Abdelmalek Sayad, “Naturels et naturalisés,” Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, … Continue reading Following on this, other uses can be proposed.

The ethnographic approach, which is attentive to organic sedimentation and the file’s archival form, offers a reminder that the individual file is a place of relations, confrontations, and interactions between individuals and institutions. Taking an ethnographic approach entails penetrating the inner workings of administrative practices. It is possible, for example, to observe the power relations between prefectural services and ministerial services, when opinions differed regarding the same case. As a preferred viewpoint for administrative work, it can also observe the positioning of other actors during naturalization and subsequent denaturalization processes. The spelling of patronyms could vary from one document to another, as could statements of profession. Files offer an invitation to reflect on the self-presentation strategies used by naturalization applicants, and remind us of the varied argumentative rhetoric used to conform to the model of the “bon Français” (good French citizen). The letters drafted to apply for nationality, or for recourse against denaturalization, present various French qualities that the individuals sought to depict. The files subsequently reveal the considerations, conflicts, and exchanges between administrations and individuals regarding how to define belonging to the French nation, and even more so how to assess “loyalty,” “morality,” and “proper assimilation,” qualities needed to establish what was referred to at the time as “worthiness” to be French.

Finding A File: Some Advice

Many of you, tempted by this description, may want to get a hold of such fine archival material. Alas, the path is not so easy! The first challenge involves finding the file among hundreds of thousands of others. They are conserved at the Archives nationales center in Pierrefitte-sur-Seine.

This involves a multi-stage search.

  1. You first have to find the precise date of the individual’s decree of naturalization. If you have the date, you can proceed directly to stage 2. To find the date, you have to consult the volumes entitled  Liste alphabétique des personnes ayant acquis ou perdu la nationalité française par décret,  (Alphabetic List of Individuals Having Acquired or Lost French Nationality by Decree), which is organized by “decade.” It can be found at the BnF (on microfilm:; at the Archives nationales in the salle des inventaires (inventories room), also on microfilm; and at the Archives de Paris, in paper volumes (which currently cannot be consulted due to the health crisis). There are two other ways of finding the decree date: the “Your Name in History” CDROM located in the salle des inventaires at the Archives nationales, a tool developed by genealogy companies to search by patronym; and finding the decree itself by consulting volumes of the Journal officiel, which publishes laws and decrees. This is relatively simple for the period before 1950, as the Journal officiel was digitized by Gallica. It is more complicated for later years.
  2. Once you have the date for the naturalization decree, you must then find the X number, the key to locating the box in the archives. If you have it, proceed directly to stage 3. If you do not, you will have to consult the naturalization decree itself. A fine project for the collaborative annotation of naturalization decrees conducted by the Archives nationales can quickly help find the decree through a search by patronymic name (thank you NATNUM!). For the years 1931-1948, searches by date can prove tedious despite the fact that decrees are digitized on the Archives nationales website, as a single decree can sometimes include hundreds of names and dozens of pages. After 1948, the number is indicated in the Journal officiel that published the decree, and in this case the LEGIFRANCE website should be consulted. Remember that the decree’s date of publication differs from that of the decree itself by a few days.
  3. Once you have this X number, things are fairly simple. Search in the correspondence tables for the appropriate box number, and then submit your records retrieval request to the Archives nationales. If the file was deposited before 1930, in other words if the number following the X is before 1930 (for example 23273X25 for the year 1925), it takes the form BB/11/9060, and can be found in this inventory: For X numbers after 1930, you have to search for the box number in the following table:

You then have to wait approximately one month for staff to pull the excerpt and make it available to you.

Happy searching!