Counting Heads: the French Census

The village of Caylus below its château. A far cry from its heyday
The village of Caylus below its château. A far cry from its heyday


We had a visit today from the local census taker, having been warned a couple of weeks ago that this was imminent. This happens every five years in a small commune like ours (more on this below). But did you know that the first national census in France, or recensement, dates back to 1328?

A bit of history (comme d’habitude)

The primary function of that first census was to find out how many people there were for taxation purposes. They counted the number of feux or foyers (hearths) – a proxy for the number of people if you multiply it by a certain number of inhabitants per household.

They came up with a population of about 16 to 17 million. But 20 years later, the population was devastated by the plague and may have been reduced by two-thirds or more in parts of France. People were more concerned with surviving than with counting the population.

It’s difficult to know how accurate the first census was. Tax-dodging has always been a national sport and the inhabitants of rural France were notoriously hostile to outsiders. As late as the 18th century, a young surveyor for the Cassini map was murdered in the Cevennes, where they suspected he was a government spy.

Very few general censuses were carried out before the Revolution. The first systematic, comprehensive census took place in 1801 and thereafter every five years until 1946. However, the cost was too great and the administration too unwieldy, so successive governments spaced them out.

Modern methods 

The last two general censuses took place in 1990 and 1999. But the interval was too wide: the population evolved significantly in between. So a new method was introduced in 2004. Now, the census is carried out every year but covers one-fifth of communes under 10,000 inhabitants and a representative cross-section in the bigger communes. So the total population is just about covered over the course of five years.

Nowadays, the information is collected for economic reasons (or so we are told) as well as simply for head-counting. You have to fill in a form detailing your age, profession, academic qualifications, surface area of house and number of rooms, whether you are a home-owner, what mode of transport you use and various other data.

All this goes back to L’Institut national de la statistique et des études économiques (INSEE), which analyses it in detail and reports on demographic trends, etc.

Local changes 

We recognised the lady who came round today as a conseillère municipale (local councillor). I presume several of them must be doing it, since the commune covers a big area, with many lieux dits (localities). She was mightily relieved that we speak French well. Things have changed in the past couple of decades, and a lot of Anglophones have moved in, so she now carries an explanatory booklet in English.

As for our own commune, Caylus, a look at its demographic history reveals the typical historical picture of a rural French village. From a peak of 5,424 inhabitants in 1836, the population halved in the 50 years between 1896 and 1946, owing to rural depopulation. It reached a low point of 1,314 in 1990. Since then, it has risen slowly to 1,531 in 2006. But the chances of the population increasing to its heyday peak are non-existent.

You might also like:

A Year in the Life of a French Commune
Aux Urnes, Mes Citoyens: the French Local Elections
Five Curiosities in Caylus

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  1. The US census takes place every 10 years. The last one was in 2010, so the next one is slated for 2010. I remember when the census person came round to my student housing when I was in college and had us fill out a short form. I can’t remember the exact specifics but one distinction that sets the US census apart from most is that race is included, it’s one of the major parts of the census. They change the names and groupings of race every time. I do remember they included “Negro” for Black/African-American which seemed odd because that term is so antiquated.

    I know France does not include race in their census, in fact I think it’s forbidden? It’s an interesting difference between the two countries.


    • I had read somewhere that race is included in the American census. In the French one, they ask about nationality but not ethnicity. I’m not sure if it is forbidden by law; I will have to find out.


  2. We got “done” yesterday. I am glad we opted for the paper version as he came in and basically completed the form, which we were very glad of as the question about academic level achieved was blinking difficult for Nick. Easy for me, I have a Masters degree which was an option on the form. Nick left school at 17 went straight into the RAF and became a helicopter pilot, we had no idea what answer to give but our conseiller fortunately did. I didn’t realise we needed to know the sq. m of the house so hadn’t looked that information out and in the guess couldn’t find it, so guestimated !!!!!


    • Yes, we also have difficulties with the questions about academic qualifications, especially Per, whose engineering degree from Sweden is hard to classify! And in my case, they don’t seem to know what an MBA is. We’ve had to provide the sq.m. on a number of occasions, so that was no problem. But we had some discussion about how many rooms the house actually has!


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