The Archives nationales (French for "National Archives") preserve the national archives of the French state, apart from the archives of the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as these two ministries have their own archive services, the Service historique de la défense and the Archives diplomatiques respectively. The Archives nationales have one of the largest and most important archival collections in the world, a testimony to the very ancient nature of the French state which has been in existence for more than eleven centuries already.
The Archives nationales were created at the time of the French Revolution in 1790, but it was a state decree of 1794 that made it mandatory to centralize all the pre-French Revolution private and public archives seized by the revolutionaries, completed by a law passed in 1796 which created departmental archives (archives départementales) in the départements of France to alleviate the burden on the Archives nationales in Paris, thus creating the collections of the Archives nationales as we know them today. In 1800 the Archives nationales became an autonomous body of the French state. Today, they contain about 364 km. (226 miles) of documents (the total length of occupied shelves put next to each other), an enormous mass of documents growing every year. The original documents stored by the Archives nationales range from A.D. 625 to today.
The Archives nationales are under the authority of the Directorate of the Archives of France (Direction des Archives de France) in the Ministry of Culture. The Archives of France also manage the 100 departmental archives located in the préfectures of each of the 100 départements of France, as well as various other local archives. These departmental and local archives contain all the archives from the decentralized branches of the French state, as well as all the archives of the pre-French Revolution provincial and local institutions seized by the revolutionaries (parlements, chartered cities, abbeys, churches, etc.). Thus, in addition to the 226miles of documents kept by the Archives nationales, at least 1500miles of documents are kept in the departmental and local archives, in particular the church records and notarial records used by genealogists.
Due to the massive volume of documents and records kept by the Archives nationales, these have been divided among four archives centres complemented by a microform centre serving as a back-up in case original documents are destroyed. The main centre is the CHAN (see below) located in Le Marais in the heart of Paris, but a new centre is being built in Pierrefitte-sur-Seine, in the northern suburbs of Paris, and will become the main centre of the Archives nationales from 2010 on, the CHAN keeping only pre-French Revolution records.
The Centre historique des Archives nationales (CHAN), French for "Historical Centre of the National Archives", has been located since 1808 in a group of buildings comprising the Hôtel de Soubise and the Hôtel de Rohan in the district of Le Marais in Paris. This centre stores all the documents and records from before 1958 (except the documents and records concerning former French colonies) as well as the archives of the French heads of state. Since 1867 it has also housed the Musée de l'Histoire de France.
The CHAN keeps 98.3 km. (61 miles) of documents (as of 2004): 15 km. are pre-French Revolutionary; 52 km. are archives of the French central state from 1790 to 1958; 20 km. are the so-called Minutier central, i.e. the archives of all the Parisian notaries extending from the 15th century to the beginning of the 20th century; 5.8 km. are private archives, notably the archives of the aristocratic families seized at the time of the French Revolution; 4.5 km. are books; and finally 1 km. are ancient maps and plans.
It should be noted that due to the events of the French Revolution, the pre-French Revolution archives kept by the Archives nationales are not just the archives of the central state, but also the many local archives of the Paris region, such as all the archives of the abbeys surrounding Paris (e.g. the Abbey of Saint-Denis), the archives of the churches of Paris, or the archives of the medieval Paris city hall. Thus, the Archives nationales serve as the archives of the French central state for records from 1790 onwards, but for records before 1790 they serve as both the archives of the central state and the local archives of Paris and its region. The Archives nationales, however, do not keep the church records of Paris (baptisms, marriages and burials). These were entirely destroyed by fires set by extremists at the end of the Paris Commune in 1871.
The oldest document kept at the CHAN is a papyrus dated A.D. 625 coming from the archives of the Abbey of Saint-Denis seized at the time of the French Revolution. This papyrus is the confirmation of a grant of land in the city of Paris to the Abbey of Saint-Denis issued by King Chlothar II. This document is the oldest original one kept by the Archives nationales, although the Archives nationales possess medieval copies of earlier records going as far back as A.D. 528 (but not the originals).
In total the Archives nationales possess 47 original documents from the Merovingian period (ended in 751). They also possess 5 original documents from the reign of Pepin the Short (751-768), 31 from the reign of Charlemagne (768-814), 28 from the reign of Louis the Pious (814-840), 69 from the reign of Charles the Bald (840-877), 1 from the reign of Hugh Capet (987-996), 21 from the reign of Robert the Pious (996-1031), and then a rapidly increasing number of original documents after Robert the Pious, with for example more than 1,000 original documents from the reign of Philip Augustus (1180-1223) and several thousand original documents from the reign of Saint Louis (1226-1270).
The Centre des archives contemporaines (CAC), French for "Centre for Contemporary Archives", opened in Fontainebleau in 1969. It is the repository for documents issued by the French central state since 1958 (founding of the Fifth Republic). The CAC contains 193 km. (120 miles) of archives (as of 2006).
The Centre des archives d'outre-mer (CAOM), French for "Centre for Overseas Archives", opened in Aix-en-Provence in 1966. It stores the archives from the ministries in charge of the French colonies and Algeria until the 1960s (such as the Ministry of Colonies) as well as the archives transferred from the French colonies and Algeria at the time of their independence between 1954-1962. The CAOM also possesses private and corporate archives related to the former French colonies and Algeria. In total the CAOM keeps 37 km. (23 miles) of archives from the 17th to the 20th century covering more than 40 currently independent countries spread over 5 continents. Note that the archives concerning Tunisia and Morocco, which were protectorates and not colonies, are kept by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in its Archives diplomatiques.
In addition to these 37 km. of archives, the CAOM also possesses 60,000 maps and plans going back to the 17th century, 150,000 photographs, 20,000 postcards, and 100,000 books.
The Centre des archives du monde du travail, French for "Centre for Business and Labour Archives", opened in Roubaix in 1993. It stores the archives of businesses, trades unions, associations and societies, and architects. In total it contains 35 km. (22 miles) of archives (as of 2006). Most of the archives in this centre are private archives.
The Centre national du microfilm, French for "National microfilm centre", opened in the Château d'Espeyran, in Saint-Gilles-du-Gard, in 1973. This centre stores original microforms of documents held in other archive centres, both national and departmental, in case the original documents were destroyed. This centre keeps approximately 61 million views of original documents.
The construction of a new national archives centre at Pierrefitte-sur-Seine, in the northern suburbs of Paris, was decided in 2004. It is meant to become the main centre of the Archives nationales, with a capacity of 320 km. (200 miles) of shelves, one of the largest storage capacities in the world. This archives centre will store the archives of the French central state since 1790 (pre-French Revolution archives will remain at the CHAN).
The Pierrefitte-sur-Seine centre will receive from its opening 60 km. (37 miles) of records from the CHAN and 120 km. (74 miles) from the CAC, which will alleviate the burden on both centres, and it will henceforth receive all the new records from the central state every year for the next 30 years after its opening. Designed by the Italian architect Massimiliano Fuksas, it is due to open in 2009.
The CHAN will remain the archives centre for pre-French Revolution archives as well as for Paris notarial records, whereas the CAC will keep 60 km. of contemporary serial archives.