The Archives Nationales (French: Archives nationales de France), also known as the French Archives or the National Archives, preserve France's official archives apart from the archives of the Ministry of the Armies and Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as these two ministries have their own archive services, the Defence Historical Service (Service historique de la défense) and Diplomatic Archives (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 twelve 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 centralise 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 French archives as we know them today. In 1800 the Archives Nationales became an autonomous body of the French state. Today, they contain about 406 km. (252 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 AD 625 to today.
The Archives Nationales are under the authority of the French Archives Administration (Service interministériel 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 decentralised branches of the French state, as well as all the archives of the pre-French Revolution provincial and local institutions seized by the revolutionaries (parliaments, chartered cities, abbeys, and churches). Thus, in addition to the 252 miles (406 km) of documents kept by the Archives Nationales, at least 1,753 miles (2,821 km) 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 original centre is still located in Le Marais in the heart of Paris, but a new centre has been built in Pierrefitte-sur-Seine, in the northern suburbs of Paris, and has acted as the main centre of the Archives Nationales since 2012, the Paris premises keeping only pre-French Revolution records.
The Archives Nationales 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 des Archives Nationales.
The AN in Paris keeps 98.3 km. (61 miles) of documents (as of 2004): 15 km. are pre-French Revolution archives; 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.
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 Basilica of St Denis), the archives of the churches of Paris, and 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 AN is a papyrus dated AD 625 coming from the archives of the Basilica of St 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 AD 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 Archives Nationales also hold the original Declaration on the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, dating from 1789, which was used to disseminate to the political community the first-ever French Constitution and represents the first printed version of that text. It was inscribed on UNESCO's Memory of the World Programme Register in 2003 in recognition of its historical significance.
The Centre for Contemporary Archives (Centre des archives contemporaines or CAC), founded as the Cité interministérielle des 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). It contains 193 km. (120 miles) of archives (as of 2006).
The National Overseas Archives (Archives nationales d'outre-mer or ANOM), originally the Centre for Overseas Archives (Centre des archives d'outre-mer), 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 and 1962. The ANOM also possesses private and corporate archives related to the former French colonies and Algeria. In total the ANOM 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 Diplomatic Archives.
In addition to these 37 km. of archives, the ANOM also possesses 60,000 maps and plans going back to the 17th century, 150,000 photographs, 20,000 postcards, and 100,000 books.
The National Archives of the World of Work (Archives nationales du monde du travail or ANMT), originally the Centre for the Archives of the World of Work (Centre des archives du monde du travail), 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 National Microfilm Centre (Centre national du microfilm), 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 and opened to the public in January 2013. 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 stores the archives of the French central state since 1790 (pre-French Revolution archives will remain in Paris).
The Pierrefitte-sur-Seine centre will receive from its opening 60 km. (37 miles) of records from the Paris centre and 120 km. (74 miles) from the Fontainebleau centre, 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 opened in January 2013.
The Paris site will remain the centre for pre-French Revolution archives as well as for Paris notarial records, whereas the Fontainebleau site will keep 60 km. of contemporary serial archives.