The New National Convention

  • National Convention after Robespierre was much more conservative than before – entrenched values of moderate middle class -> drastic change for once-powerful groups like sans-culottes and Jacobins who were forced underground (‘sans-culottes’ even became a derisive term)
  • French economy struggled during winter of 1794–1795, with widespread hunger
  • Convention worked hard to create new constitution but faced wide opposition (since many sanctions against  churches were revoked, clergy, many still loyal to royalty, returned from exile)
  • Comte de Provence, younger brother of Louis XVI, declared that royalty would return with himself as Louis XVIII

The Constitution of 1795 and the Directory

  • August 22, 1795, Convention ratified new Constitution of 1795, which brought governmental restructuring – new legislature consisted of two houses:

o    Upper house called Council of Ancients, consisting of 250 members

o    Lower house called Council of Five Hundred, consisting of 500 members

  • Fearing influence from left, Convention decreed 2/3 of members of new legislature had to have been in National Convention between 1792 and 1795
  • New constitution also stipulated that executive body of new government would be group of five officers called Directory -> No legislative power but had authority to appoint people to positions within government, a considerable power in itself
  • Annual elections to be held to keep new government in check
  • Dilemma facing Directory was daunting one: rid political scene of Jacobin influence while preventing royalists from taking advantage of disarray and reclaiming throne

-> ‘2/3’ rule was implemented for this reason, to keep same composition as original, moderate-run

National Convention

  • In theory, new government closely resembled that of United States, with its checks-and-balances system; as it turned out, new government’s priorities became its downfall – rather than address deteriorating economic situation, legislature instead focused on keeping progressive members out

-> ultimately, paranoia and overprotection weakened group

Napoleon and the French Army

  • Meanwhile, strengthened by Committee of Public Safety’s conscription of 1793, French army had grown significantly – while foundation of Directory was laid, army, having defended France against invasion from Prussia and Austria, continued fighting its way into foreign countries and annexing land; from 1795 to 1799, French army was nearly unstoppable -> Napoleon Bonaparte, young Corsican in charge of French forces in Italy and then Egypt, won fame with series of brilliant victories and gathered massive reservoirs of wealth and support as they fought across Europe
  • Directory encouraged war effort, less as democratic crusade against tyranny than as means of resolving unemployment crisis in France; large, victorious French army lowered unemployment and guaranteed soldiers steady pay to buy goods -> Directory hoped increased income would encourage increase in demand, reinvigorating French economy

Abuses by the Directory

  • Unfortunately, it was not long before Directory began to abuse its power; results of elections of 1795 were worrisome because a number of moderate royalists won (although these royalists didn’t exactly qualify as ‘counterrevolutionaries’, their loyalty to Directory was nevertheless suspect)
  • May 1796, group of Jacobins, led by prominent publisher Gracchus Babeuf, met secretly to plan a coup to reinstate  government of Constitution of 1793 -> already troubled by 1795 election results, Directory squashed coup plot, arrested conspirators, and had Babeuf guillotined

The Elections and Coup of 1797

  • As elections of 1797 drew near, Directory noticed significant royalist and neo-Jacobin influences leaking into republic, which could have terrible implications for direction of legislature, but Directory obeyed Constitution of 1795 and its mandate for annual elections – allowed elections as scheduled
  • September 4, 1797, after elections produced decidedly pro-royal and pro-Jacobin results, three members of Directory orchestrated an overthrow of legislature, annulling election results and removing a majority of new deputies; coup plotters also unseated two members of Directory itself, including military strategist Lazare Carnot, and installed two new directors, ensuring government would retain its moderate stance

Popular Discontent

  • New Directory was powerfully conservative, initiating strong new financial policies and cracking down on radicalism through executions and other means, but coup and Directory’s subsequent abuses of power destroyed government’s credibility and further disillusioned French populace -> in elections of 1798, left-wing made gains, feeding on public anger about coup and reinstatement of military draft
  • Directory, justifiably fearing opposition’s gains, again nullified almost one-third of election results, ensuring its own policies would remain strongly in place à public dissatisfaction was obvious result, and next elections would have lowest turnout of any during Revolution
    • As inflation continued unchecked, public wondered if royalty’s return to power might be more beneficial; trust and faith in revolutionary government neared an all-time low

French Military Defeats

  • As government’s credibility took a turn for worse, so did French military fortunes; in 1799, Napoleon’s seemingly unstoppable forward progress ran into a roadblock in Egypt, and France’s military faced simultaneous threats from Britain, Austria, Russia, and Ottoman Empire -> hearing of political manoeuvring taking place in mainland Europe, as well as within France, Napoleon deserted his men and headed back to France

Sieyès and the Coup of 1799

  • Failing war efforts amplified people’s distrust of Directory, and large majorities of French public began calling for peace at home and abroad
  • May 1799, Council of 500, elected Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès to Directory as a result of extensive manoeuvring on Sieyès’s part; Sieyès did not want power for himself but intended to use it to protect France from future instability and disturbances -> enlisted aid of Napoleon, with whom he planned a military coup to topple Directory on which Sieyès himself served
  • Coup d’état occurred on November 9, 1799, when Napoleon, who had returned to France, overthrew Directory; next day, Napoleon dissolved legislature and instituted himself as First Consul, leader of a military dictatorship -> By imposing state of military rule that would govern France for  fifteen years, Napoleon effectively ended French Revolution

Reasons for the Coup d’état

  • Although Directory had encouraged army’s actions, French army’s unprecedented success in expansion actually ended up working against Directory rather than for it – being away from France for so long, soldiers (particularly those under Napoleon) formed own identities and group loyalties

-> By splitting spoils of war campaigns with troops, Napoleon earned steadfast devotion of what

became his private army which would prove essential to success of his coup and military rule and

expansionism that would follow

  • Sieyès’s manoeuvring may seem inexplicable, as he essentially finagled power in Directory just so he could use power to remove himself from Directory in favour of Napoleon; though that explanation is an oversimplification, it illuminates Sieyès’s priorities and demonstrates revolutionary spirit that prompted him to make such a sacrifice
  • To Sieyès, it was clear that military rule under someone such as Napoleon would be much more beneficial to France than  argumentative, corrupt, and generally ineffective system that was in place

->  though Napoleon would lead as dictator, he would do so with more respect for spirit of liberty and

equality than  originators of French Revolution had pursued

author avatar
William Anderson (Schoolworkhelper Editorial Team)
William completed his Bachelor of Science and Master of Arts in 2013. He current serves as a lecturer, tutor and freelance writer. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, walking his dog and parasailing. Article last reviewed: 2022 | St. Rosemary Institution © 2010-2024 | Creative Commons 4.0

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