France under the Directory

french revolution directory
A depiction of a woman meeting ornately dressed members of the Directory

The Directory (sometimes called the Directorate) was a five-man executive committee that governed France for four years after the dissolution of the National Convention. In its lifetime, the government of the Directory faced several challenges, insurrections and attempted coups. It was eventually toppled by Napoleon Bonaparte on 18-19 Brumaire (November 1799).

A return to bourgeois rule

The Directory was created and empowered by the Constitution of the Year III, which was adopted by the National Convention in August 1795 and later endorsed by a plebiscite. This Constitution also created a bicameral (two-chamber) legislature.

The road to the Directory began with the Thermidorian Reaction. Thermidorian deputies feared both a revival of left-wing radicalism and a right-wing royalist counter-revolution. They wanted to end the revolution by establishing a stable political system based on representative democracy and the rule of law.

During the four years of the Directory, France returned to a national government that was more exclusive and less democratic. Power returned to the hands of bourgeois liberal-conservatives, who sought to restore the moderate revolutionary values of 1789. The men of the Directory were pragmatists, less flamboyant, principled and ideologically driven than previous revolutionary figures.

Economic failures

In 1794, the Thermidorians launched a ‘White Terror’ to purge France’s political life of Jacobins and sans-culottes. No longer dominated by radicals or subject to pressure by Parisian mobs, the National Convention became more moderate and centrist.

As it stabilised and began to deliberate on a constitution, the Thermidorian Convention also took steps to reconstruct and revive France’s national economy.

The Convention’s deputies, now dominated by the capitalist middle classes, passed laws and measures to restore the free market. The Convention ended price controls like the Maximum (abolished in December 1794), deregulated trade and authorised more releases of paper currency [assignats].

These policies failed to produce any short-term improvement in food prices or living conditions, a problem not helped by another poor harvest and bitter winter in 1794-95. By the spring of 1795, wage levels, inflation and food shortages in Paris were as bad as they had been in 1789.

These conditions triggered two more sans-culotte insurrections. The first, on April 1st 1795 (12 Germinal), was dispersed with minimal violence. Another on May 20th (1 Prairial) saw the Convention building invaded and a deputy murdered. Unlike in 1793, however, the sans-culottes were unable to find support in the Convention and their demands were largely ignored.

A new constitution

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A contemporary engraving called ‘The Tyranny Crushed by the Friends of the Constitution of the Year III’

These insurrections alarmed the Convention and hastened the finalisation of the new constitution. Drafted by an 11-man committee, the Constitution of the Year III was unveiled in July 1795 and passed by the Convention the following month.

Like its predecessors, the new constitution sought to bring the revolution to a close. It attempted to integrate representative democracy, rule of law and the separation of executive and legislative power.

The Constitution of Year III also protected individual rights, though these protections were conditional on citizenship, which was not an automatic right. The Constitution contained qualifications for citizenship and voting rights even more rigid than the ‘active’ and ‘passive’ limitations in the Constitution of 1791.

The ‘Two-Thirds Clause’

The Constitution of the Year III also contained a controversial clause requiring two-thirds of seats in the new legislature to be filled by members of the Thermidorian Convention.

The polar opposite of Maximilien Robespierre‘s ‘self-denying ordinance’ of 1791, this ‘Two-Thirds Clause’ was included to ensure continuity from one government to the next – and to prevent the new legislature being swamped by radicals and populists.

The Constitution was adopted by the National Convention on August 22nd 1795. It was then endorsed overwhelmingly by a public plebiscite (though only one in five eligible voters participated). The process of electing the legislature, comprised of two houses (the Council of Five Hundred and the Council of Ancients) then began.

Royalist counter-revolt

Even as the new government was taking shape, it had to deal with an attempted royalist counter-revolution. This uprising was inspired by opposition to the Two-Thirds Clause, as well as the mobilisation of émigré armies outside Paris and the return to French soil of the Comte d’Artois, younger brother of Louis XVI.

In Paris’ Le Peletier district, north of the Seine, royalist mobs began to mobilise and agitate. By the start of October 1795, these mobs were taking up arms and threatening to displace the government. The Convention responded by forming an emergency five-man committee to manage the situation.

The final confrontation came in the early hours of October 5th (13 Vendémiaire), when royalists launched an attack on the Convention building. Their assault was halted in under an hour by the forces of General Napoleon Bonaparte, chiefly by firing grapeshot (clusters of small pellets) from cannon into the royalist ranks.

Napoleon’s defence of the Convention – and, by extension, the French Revolution – enhanced his prestige as a military commander.

The leadership of the Directory

The first five members of the Directory were nominated by the Five Hundred and chosen by the Ancients. Their choices were far from notable.

Paul Barras, a minor noble from southern France, became the most prominent and longest-serving member of the Directory. Barras was known for his verbose charm, his involvement in plots and intrigues and his shifting political loyalties, moving from radical Jacobin to anti-Robespierrist to bourgeois moderate. Ultimately, Barras’ most steadfast loyalty was to himself.

Other Directory members included Louis La Révellière-Lépeaux, a lawyer from the Vendée, slow-speaking and dull of personality but strongly opposed to both monarchy and Catholicism. Jean-François Reubell was another lawyer who had served in the National Assembly and the National Convention. Lazare Carnot was a former military officer who entered the National Convention in 1792 and took a leading role in restructuring and improving France’s Revolutionary Army.

The Babeuf conspiracy

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François-Noël Babeuf, who inspired a popular movement against the Directory in 1795-96

During its lifetime, the Directory continued to endure a great deal of political intrigue and plotting. These came from both the left (former Jacobins and sans-culottes) and the right (royalists and conservatives).

One significant pro-Jacobin plot was the Babeuf conspiracy, named for François-Noël Babeuf, a radical journalist dubbed the Jean-Paul Marat of the Directory period.

During the food shortages of 1795, Babeuf relentless attacked the Thermidorian and Directory governments for their lack of action. His writings became popular with former Jacobins and sans-culottes, some of whom formed a small club called the Societé des égaux (‘Society of Equals’). 

By the spring of 1796, a half-million Parisians were reported to be starving and there were suggestions and plots for a possible coup d’etat. The calls for political change intensified through April. The following month, the Directory responded by arresting Babeuf and his closest followers. He was detained and executed in May 1797.

How did the Directory survive?

How did the Directory survive as long as it did, given its dull or questionable leadership, its economic failures and the hostility of counter-revolutionaries on both the left and right?

In large part, the government of the Directory was sustained by ongoing war in Europe. France’s Revolutionary Army continued its successes in 1795-96, making inroads into Spain, Italy and several German kingdoms and even threatening Austria.

The Directory and its leaders contributed little to these successes but benefited politically from them. France’s military conquests were celebrated at home and provided a welcome distraction from the government’s domestic failures.

Maintaining France’s Revolutionary Army was costly – but its victories also helped sustain the national economy. Military successes abroad brought with them territory, resources and money plundered from conquered regions.

The war also kept the nation’s soldiers and ambitious generals outside the nation’s borders. Were they to return, the conditions in France would likely see the army align with royalists or militarists to attempt a seizure of power.

The Directory falls

directory 18 brumaire
A British cartoon by Gillray depicting violence scenes in the legislature on 19 Brumaire

This is what eventually transpired in November 1799 (Year VIII), when the Directory was overthrown in a coup d’etat carried out by Napoleon Bonaparte and his collaborators. Many view Napoleon’s seizure of power the endpoint of the French Revolution.

The Coup of 18 Brumaire, as it is usually known, began with Napoleon and his troops returning to Paris after their successful campaign in Egypt. The architect of the coup was Emmanuel Sieyès, by then a member of the Directory but resentful of both the Constitution of the Year III and the government it had created.

Napoleon’s military prowess and enormous popularity impressed Sieyès, who saw Bonaparte as a means to dispense with the government. As the two conspired, however, Napoleon was drawing his own plans for a military dictatorship.

On 19 Brumaire, Napoleon stormed into the legislature and attempted to seize power. This triggered a violent confrontation in the Council of Five Hundred in which Napoleon was assaulted and the chamber was stormed by troops, effectively bringing the government of the Directory to an end.

Evaluation and historians

Traditionally, the Directory has been viewed in a negative light. Its tenure is often seen as anti-democratic, marred by self-interest, corruption, maladministration, failed economic reforms, bankruptcy and failure. Then and now, its leaders have been criticised as either talentless and mediocre or conniving and self-serving.

The Directory never enjoyed much public support. Weary after six years of revolution, political instability and economic shortages, millions of French citizens became apathetic and disconnected from politics. They chose not to vote and did their best to evade taxes and military service.

More recent historiography suggests the Directory was able to restore France’s national economy, facilitate acceptance of a liberal-conservative republic, prevent a royalist counter-revolution and stop the country from plunging into civil war. Andrew Jainchill (Reimagining Politics after the Terror, 2018) suggests the Directory period helped create a new modern, workable interpretation of liberalism.

British historian James Livesey (Making Democracy in the French Revolution, 2001) believes that 1795-99 was a vital period in France’s political evolution. Livesey argues that under the Directory, the Jacobins shifted from violent activism to more effective engagement with liberal-democratic republicanism.

A historian’s view:
“The class-conscious bourgeois of the Thermidorian Convention and… the Directory practised a politics of social consolidation which sought to recreate France in their own image. Desperate to avoid the twin perils of royalist counter-revolution and Jacobin popular democracy, the Directory pursued religious, military, economic and social policies which could rely at the local level only on a narrow base of support… By excluding royalists and the poor from the political process, and by restricting that process to electoral participation, the Directory sought to create a republican regime based on ‘capacity’ and a stake in society.”
Peter McPhee

french revolution directory

1. Between 1795 and 1799, France was ruled by a five-man executive committee called the Directory and a legislature of two chambers: the Council of Five Hundred and the Council of Ancients.

2. This government was formed after the passing of the Constitution of Year III in mid-1795. Unlike the 1793 constitution, this placed significant restrictions on the right to vote.

3. The Directory government sought to return to the moderate revolutionary values of 1789. It placed great emphasis on economic reform and political stability, preventing and suppressing radicalism.

4. During its lifetime, the Directory faced significant problems, most notably food shortages in Paris and the threat of a coup or counter-revolution from both left and right.

5. The Directory was eventually overthrown in a November 1799 coup d’etat led by Napoleon Bonaparte. This was orchestrated by Emmanuel Sieyes after Bonaparte’s triumphant return from military campaigns in Egypt.

Citation information
Title: “France under the Directory”
Authors: Jennifer Llewellyn, Steve Thompson
Publisher: Alpha History
Date published: October 22, 2019
Date accessed: October 19, 2020
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