In the next installment in our series on archival research, Joanna Warson guides us through the complexities of the French National Archives, highlighting collections that are of particular relevance to Imperial and Global History:
Archival research is, in the words of Richard Evans, ‘rather like doing a jigsaw puzzle, where the pieces are scattered all over the house in several boxes, some of which have been destroyed, and where once it is put together, a significant number of the pieces are still missing’. The difficult task of uncovering, accessing and piecing together the fragments of the past has only increased with the rise of Imperial and Global history, with scholars seeking documents from multiple archives in numerous countries. Nowhere, I would argue, is this challenge more acute than in the study of French foreign and imperial policy, something I have experienced first hand over the past five years while conducting research into French involvement in Anglophone Africa during the age of decolonisation.
Archives Nationales, Pierrefitte-sur-Seine © Joanna Warson, 2014
Whilst it is common practice for historians of Imperial and Global history to make use of a variety of archives, both nationally and internationally, the highly decentralised nature of the French archival system further increases the number of archives available to historians of France overseas. This is apparent, most notably, in the case of the French National Archives. Although called the Archives Nationales, this archive is not, as is the case with the UK National Archives at Kew, located all in one place. Instead, there are three Archives Nationales sites located across the French capital – one in the heart of Marais district of central Paris, which houses all material from the Middle Ages and the Ancien Régime; a second site at Fontainebleau, housing a wide variety private archives; and finally, the most recent addition, a site at Pierrefitte-sur-Seine, housing all material relating to the period after the French Revolution in 1789. Of particular note at Pierrefitte-sur-Seine is the Presidential Archive, which provides insight into the workings of the Elysée Palace, an institution central to French foreign policy, especially after the advent of the Fifth Republic in 1958. The Presidential Archives had a reputation for being notoriously difficult to access but there are now published catalogues available for many of the Presidential Archives, including Charles De Gaulle, and, although a dérogation (a special permission granted by the Elysée, which can sometimes take months to come through) is required to view any document, these papers are gradually becoming more readily available to researchers.
However, this is far from the whole picture, since these so-called National Archives do not house all official French papers. Instead, there are separate archives for the Foreign Ministry, the Ministry of Colonies, the Ministry of Defence, and the Ministry of Economy and Finance, to name but a few, which are located not only around Paris but across France. And the plethora of archives does not stop there. There are, for example, two different archives housing material emanating from the French Foreign Ministry. Firstly, there is the Archives du Ministère des Affaires Etrangères, recently relocated from the Quai d’Orsay in central Paris, to a vast, modern building in La Courneuve, five miles from the centre of the capital. Here you can find the papers of the Central Administration of the French Foreign Ministry relating to bilateral and multilateral engagement overseas. There are some limitations to this archive. Whilst an electronic document request system is now in place, catalogues are currently only available in paper form at the Archives itself. In addition, although the majority of documents housed here are fully de-classified, some of the material listed in the inventories is only available by a personal request to the archivist responsible for that particular collection. And, although it is easy enough to make such a request via email, the likelihood of actually gain access to all the material you desire is slim (I speak from experience!)
The second archive of the French Foreign Ministry, the Archives Diplomatiques, is located in the city of Nantes, two and a half hours by train from Paris, and houses papers repatriated from France’s diplomatic representations overseas. Although there is some overlap with the material kept at La Courneuve, this small and friendly archive is a personal favourite of mine. The atmosphere is relaxed, evidenced by the looser security arrangements and the more flexible approach to document requests, and archivists may seek out documents on your behalf if you let them know what you are working on. It is possible to download a basic version of the catalogue in PDF form in advance of your visit and the archive houses material from as recent as the year 2000. In my experience, these collections are a real gold mine, and I would highly recommend a visit if you are working on any aspect of French Imperial and Global history.
The final French archive that I used during the course of my doctoral research is the Archives Nationales d’Outre-Mer, located – rather fortuitously one might say – in Aix-en-Provence. This is a rich archive housing material produced by the various ministries charged with the French Colonial Empire from the 17th to the 20th century. It also includes papers from the local administrations of France’s former colonies, various private archives and an impressive collection of photographs maps and books. There is an excellent digital catalogue for the majority of the archive’s collections, and the staff are knowledgeable and keen to help. Combined with the obvious pleasures of working in the south of France, this archive is a delight and should not be missed by Imperial and Global historians of France.
For further practical advice regarding the archives discussed in this blog, please visit the Society for the Study of French History’s website.
 Richard J. Evans, In Defence of History (London, 1997), p.89
 Nicole Evans, Archives de la Présidence de la République. Général de Gaulle (1949-1969) (Paris, 2012).