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French Directory

French Directory

After the chaos of the Terror and the Thermidorian Reaction, the Directory was established. Although intended to be a more fair and just system, it is now regarded as the most ineffective of the Revolutionary regimes. But why did this happen, and what came after?

French Directory Timeline

DateEvent
27 - 28 July 1794Thermidorian Reaction, where Maximilien Robespierre was overthrown and the Reign of Terror was ended.
22 August 1795Constitution of Year III was created and passed.
2 November 1795The French Directory, Council of 500, and the Council of Ancients were established.
4 September 1797Coup d'état of Fructidor. The French Directory sought to re-establish republican control of the Legislature after a rise in monarchist popularity. Many pro-monarchy deputies were expelled from the Legislature.
11 May 1798Law of 22 Floréa, which expelled 127 left-wing delegates from the Council of 500.
9 - 10 November 1799Coup of Brumaire, where Napoleon overthrew the Directory.

Directory French Revolution

The French Directory was created by the Thermidorian Convention as a successor to the National Convention. The Thermidorian Convention was made up of those who succeeded to power after the Thermidorian Reaction.

Thermidorian Reaction

A coup against Maximilien Robespierre. Sick of the extreme violence of the Terror as well as Robespierre's increasingly erratic and nonsensical behaviour, the Thermidorians pushed to have Robespierre and his supporters arrested and executed.

Even after the coup was successful, the Thermidorians knew they needed to change the structure of government in order to ensure that a dictatorship like the Terror could not happen again.

France 1795

The plans for this new system of government were laid out in the Constitution of Year III, created in 1795. Alongside increased voting rights, the Constitution laid out this new structure of government, consisting of two new legislative houses and an overseeing executive committee.

French Directory Government

Here is a table outlining the different institutions the Thermidorians created, as part of their new government structure.

InstitutionDescriptionPowers
Council of 500First legislative house. It consisted of 500 elected deputies, all over the age of 30. Could introduce or amend new legislation, which would then be passed on to the Council of Ancients for approval or denial. They drew up a list of candidates for the Directory, which would then be passed on to the Council of Ancients.
Council of AncientsSecond legislative house. It consisted of 250 men, all of whom had to be over the age of 40. Power to approve or deny new legislation, but could not introduce or amend my legislation. They received a list of candidates for the Directory from the Council of 500. They then elected members of the Directory.
The DirectoryExecutive branch of government. Consisted of 5 members - the Directors. Each Director had to serve for 5 years. However, one Director, chosen at random, had to resign each year. This way, no one person or group of people could hold power for too long, thus preventing a dictatorship.Responsible for diplomacy, military affairs, and law enforcement.

Government Structure

Here is a flowchart to help you visualise the structure of the Directory and how the councils fit together.

french directory french revolution studysmarterA flowchart explaining the structure of the French Directory. Author's own image.

French Directory Policies

The Directory's aim was to create and maintain a stable government - particularly needed after the reign of Terror and years of Revolutionary Terror.

French Directory Policies Economic

The economic state of France was dire when the Directory took control. The treasury was almost empty thanks to the continuous conflicts France had been involved in, taxes had been left unpaid and the value of the assignat, the currency used in France, had dropped significantly. The Directory took measures to change these, led by the Finance Minister, Dominique-Vincent Ramel.

French Directory Policies Currency

Initially, the Directory tried to solve some of this problem by introducing a new currency, called the mandats territoriaux. However, these quickly lost value and were eventually stopped. The government had to fall back on metal coinage, called livres, but there were not a lot of these coins in circulation.

In response, the government pushed deflation, meaning that prices would lower and people could afford more with currency. However, this lost them favour with businesses, as they made fewer profits.

French Directory Policies Debt

The biggest problem was the huge amount of National debt the government had. In 1797, the Directory organised the National Debt so that 2/3 would be paid off through a one-time payment to debt holders. This benefitted the government a lot, since they not only had less to pay back, but the interest on the National Debt became much lower. This action helped to stabilise France's finances for an extended period of time.

French Directory Policies Taxes

The finance minister of the Directory, Ramel, reformed the tax system, so it would be more efficient and the government could fill the Treasury. Here are the main features of his policy:

  • He introduced new taxes on trading licences, land, moveable property and doors and windows.

  • He centralised the tax system - this meant that the central government collected the taxes, instead of it going through local administration.

  • He introduced the octrois - a tariff on goods being traded around the country. This led to a raise in prices and was not popular.

Looted goods from military campaigns in Italy and Germany also helped the finances of the Treasury.

French Directory Policies Foreign

Since the beginning of the Revolution, France had been at near-constant war with its neighbours, particularly Austria. The Directory took steps to try and end this once and for all.

The primary goal was to defeat Austria. This would be done in two campaigns. The first went across Bavaria into Austria. The second went through Italy and the Alps to capture Austria's capital, Vienna. The man put in charge of the Italian campaign was none other than Napoleon Bonaparte.

French Directory Napoleon Italian Campaign painting StudySmarterNicholas-Antoine Taunay, Napoleon's Italian campaign. Wikimedia Commons.

Napoleon was only 27 years old, and not much was expected of him. Yet within a year of being given his command, in February 1797, Bonaparte and his forces captured Vienna and negotiated a peace treaty with the Austrians.

The Peace of Campo Formio, signed on 18 October 1797, established new territories and new borders for France and Austria, bringing the war to a conclusion.

French Directory Policies Suppression of the Royalists

Another major issue that the Directory faced was the growing support for the Royalist cause. Many people had tired of the near constant regime changes under the Revolution, and the idea of a constitutional monarchy became very appealing as a way of guaranteeing some form of long-term continuity. However, the remaining Jacobin faction were strictly anti-monarchy and believed this went against the Revolution.

French Directory Policies Coup d'état of Fructidor

The elections of 1797 showed a clear shift in support towards the royalist cause. The monarchists ended up with 330 seats in the Councils, supported by the wealthier bourgeoisie. This was a huge problem for the Directory. While the monarchists did not have a majority in the Councils, the Directory could now rely on only a third of the deputies to fully back it.

Equally, the Directory realised that if the voting pattern stayed the same in the next election, the monarchists would gain a majority and be able to restore the monarchy legally. In addition, three of the five Directors were monarchists and so were the Presidents of both councils.

The remaining Revolutionaries decided that something had to be done. On 3 September, they ordered troops to surround the Council chambers and arrest those in the pro-monarchy faction. 53 deputies and 2 Directors were imprisoned.

Open your eyes Frenchmen, for it is high time you noticed the trap into which the King's friends and France's enemies wished to lure you."

- Proclamation of the Directory to the French People, 9 September 1797.1

Other deputies were then pressured into passing two decrees; one which cancelled the next elections and got rid of 177 deputies without providing replacements, and one which allowed for the deportation of the arrested deputies and directors to penal colonies in French Guiana.

French Directory End

Although the Directory had lasted longer than any other of the Revolutionary regimes, in 1799 it finally met its match, in the form of Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon had been rising through the ranks since the beginning of the Revolution, was becoming more and more popular. He had impressed many with his skills of strategy and command despite his young age.

French Directory napoleon bonaparte french revolution studysmarterDavid's portrait of Napoleon, 1812. Wikimedia Commons.

The same could not be said of the Directory, however. After their treatment of the royalist deputies, as well as the reintroduction of conscription and raising money through forced loans, the Directory was falling deeply out of favour with the French public.

In 1799, the Directory practically collapsed, for the following reasons:

  • The National Guard was not large enough to keep order, so there were areas of the country that were completely un-policed.

  • Royalists in local administrations often refused to carry out the orders of the Directory, especially concerning persecuting priests or levying forced loans.

  • The Directory struggled to enforce their orders due to a lack of troops, and had difficulty appointing sympathetic politicians to local administration.

The Coup of Brumaire

The Coup of Brumaire was the idea of Abbé Sieyès, a priest turned politician who had been an influential theorist in the French Revolution. He was elected as a Director in 1799, and saw the ongoing crises as a perfect opportunity to stage a coup against the Directory.

Sieyès knew that he would need the support of the army to stage a coup, and set about finding a General that could be trusted. He soon allied with Napoleon whose return to Paris was met with huge crowds.

The plan was to move the Councils to Saint-Cloud - a former royal palace in the suburbs of Paris - under the guise of keeping themselves safe from an imagined plot. However, once they were there, the truth of the matter became clear, and the deputies became furious.


File:Bouchot - Le general Bonaparte au Conseil des Cinq-Cents (cropped).jpgNapoleon during the Coup de Brumaire, addressing the councils at Saint-Cloud. 1840. Wikimedia Commons.

To try and calm things down, Napoleon addressed the councils. However, he was attacked by deputies from the Council of 500 when he tried to speak. He was saved by his troops, who rushed in and cleared the chamber where the Council had met.

Some hours later, a group of Councillors, sympathetic to the Coup, met and approved a decree that officially abolished the French Directory and replaced it with a provisional council of Sieyès, Napoleon and another politician, Roger Ducos.

Legacy of the French Directory

Despite being the longest revolutionary government, the French Directory was the least effective and the least popular. The reign of the Directory was marked by war, food shortages and uprisings.

The Directory is not looked kindly upon by historians, either. Concerning the workings of the Directory, Jerome Blum wrote that the Directory was a government of 'self-interest, rather than virtue', and that the Directory only kept power through illegal means such as 'purges and quashed elections'.2

A key factor in the failure of the Directory was its lack of popular support. Historian Isser Woloch speaks of a 'massive disengagement, apathy and cynicism about government.'3 This is not hard to believe - after 10 years of Revolution and multiple different regimes and factions jostling for power, it is understandable that the French people were growing tired of revolutionary regimes and wanted change.

French Directory - Key takeaways

  • The French Directory was the last of the regimes of the French Revolution. It was established in 1795 and lasted until 1799.
  • The Directory faced many problems - namely, economic issues concerning devalued currency and food shortages, and foreign issues caused by war with Austria.
  • The Directory lost a lot of popularity with the people, who were tired after multiple regime changes during the Revolution.
  • Monarchism was rising again in France and the Directory took steps to abolish it - namely through the Coup of Fructidor, which expelled many deputies and two Directors from government.
  • However, the Directory was overthrown in 1799 in the Coup of Brumaire, organised by Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès and supported by Napoleon Bonaparte.
  • The fall of the Directory is considered to be the end point of the French Revolution.

References

  1. John Hall Stewart, A Documentary Survey of the French Revolution (New York: Macmillan, 1951), 695–96.
  2. Jerome Blum, Rondo Cameron, and Thomas G. Barnes, The European World – A History, 2nd ed., 1970.
  3. Isser Woloch, “In the Aftermath of the French Revolution.” The History Teacher 28, no. 1 (1994): 7–11.

Frequently Asked Questions about French Directory

The Directory was the executive branch of the last regime of the French Revolution.

The Directory was formally established on the 2nd November 1795. Plans for the Directory were laid down in the Constitution of Year III.

The Directory was formally established on the 2nd November 1795. Plans for the Directory were laid down in the Constitution of Year III.

The Directory was formally established on the 2nd November 1795. Plans for the Directory were laid down in the Constitution of Year III.

The Directory faced many problems due to the war with Austria and the Second Coalition, as well as food shortages and the rising popularity of monarchism.

The French Directory was important because its unpopularity and ineffectiveness led to the rise of Napoleon.

Final French Directory Quiz

Question

When the Directory assumed power in 1795, what domestic difficulties were they facing? 

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Answer

1. A coup d’Etat with a goal of establishing a communist government was attempted. 


2. Vendee insurrections did not seem to die down. 

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Question

Why did the political situation in France deteriorate since Bonaparte’s departure to Egypt? 

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Answer

1. Austria suddenly declared war on France in 1799, urging France to adopt emergency measures. Due to the majority of the French troops being in Egypt, France suffered a series of military losses in the summer of 1799. 


2. The Coup of 30 Prairial VII ousted the Jacobins and allowed Emmanual Joseph Sieyes to gain prominence within the government.

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Question

What was the overall plan of the coup d’etat of Brumaire?

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Answer

To overthrow the Constitution of the Year III and create a more strong executive body. 

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Question

Who falsely led the Councils to believe that a Jacobin plot to overthrow the government was in the works?


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Answer

Lucien Bonaparte.

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Question

What were the names of the two Jacobin Directors who protested against their resignation from the Directory? 


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Answer

Louis-Jerome Gohier.

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Question

Was the Council of Five Hundred easily persuaded to accept a new constitution that validated the coup?


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Answer

Yes. The Council of Five Hundred was persuaded right away. 

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Question

List some of the outcomes of the coup d’etat of Brumaire. 


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Answer

1. Bonaparte, Sieyes, and Roger Ducos were named as provisional Consults.


2. The Constitution of the Year VIII was implemented, making Napoleon the First Consul. 


3. Napoleon successfully completed a coup within a coup, gaining more power than the other conspirators. 

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Question

How did the changes in the French Constitution strengthen Napoleon’s position in the country, allowing him to become the Emperor of France?


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Answer

The Constitution of the Year X allowed Bonaparte to become the First Consul for life. The Constitution of the Year XII established the First French Empire with Napoleon being the Emperor of the French.

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Question

What was the predecessor to the Consulate called?

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Answer

The Directory

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Question

Who was Emmanuel Seiyès?

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Answer

An anti-Jacobin Director in the Directory who was concerned about the direction it was taking - he hatched the plan for 18 Brumaire with Napoleon

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Why did Emmanuel Seiyès choose Napoleon to team up with?

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Answer

His original choice had died in battle, while Napoleon disliked Barras. They initially clashed but shared the common goal of overthrowing the Directory so put their differences aside.

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How did Napoleon get his way with the design of the new Consulate?

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By pitting competing visions against each other and managing to keep te bits that suited him most from each.

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What was Napoleon's role in the new Consulate?

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First Consul for ten years

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What was the plot of Rue Saint-Nicaise?

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Answer

A failed assassination attempt against Napoleon in December 1800. 

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What were the consequences of the failed plot of Rue Saint-Nicaise?

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Answer

Napoleon used this and other plots against him as an excuse to deport many royalists

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How did Napoleon use the French public to consolidate his power?

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Answer

By using referendums to gradually increase his power and reduce that of the Consulate. For example, the Constitution of the Year XII reduced the Consulate to a mere shell form with almost no power.

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When was the Consulate established?

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1799

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What did Napoleon use to maintain the loyalty of those around him and the public?

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He used sanctions and rewards, particularly bestowing many new titles and giving personal gifts of money and land.

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Question

When did the First White Terror take place?

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1795

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When did the Second White Terror take place?

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1815

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Napoleon's second return to power in 1815 was called...

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The Hundred Days

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The Second White Terror was triggered by the restoration of who as king?

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Answer

Louis XVIII

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Question

Which major event in the French Revolution was the First White Terror a reaction to?

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Answer

The Reign of Terror

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Which counter-revolutionary conflict formed part of the First White Terror?

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Answer

The Vendée Uprising

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Where was the White Terror the most severe?

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Answer

The south of France

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Which of these was a group that perpetrated the White Terror?

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Answer

The Companions of Jehu

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The Muscadins were formed of which type of person

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Young, middle-class men

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What was the name of the declaration that announced Louis XVIII's intent to restore the monarchy?

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Answer

The Verona Declaration

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Question

The uprising against the National Convention on 5th October 1795 is known as...

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Answer

The Vendémiaire Uprising

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Which of these was NOT a group targeted by the First White Terror?

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Answer

Royalists

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To what extent did the Verona Declaration increase support for the Royalist cause?

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Answer

To no extent - it decreased support

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Who was responsible for stopping the Vendémiaire Uprising?

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Answer

Napoleon Bonaparte

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In the Second White Terror, violence worsened when...

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Answer

The departmental elections happened

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When was the French Directory established?

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Answer

2 November 1795

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Question

In which document were the plans for the establishment of the Directory laid out?

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Answer

The Constitution of Year III

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Question

Which significant event allowed for a change in regime that lead to the creation of the Directory?

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Answer

The Thermidorian Reaction

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Question

The lower legislative house of the French Directory was called....

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Answer

The Council of 500

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Question

The upper legislative house of the French Directory was called....

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Answer

The Council of Ancients

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Question

The members of the Directory were called Directors. How many were there?

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Answer

5

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Question

Which Coup led to the overthrow of the Directory?

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Answer

Coup of Brumaire

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Who instigated the Coup of Brumaire?

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Answer

Joseph Emmanuel Sieyès

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Question

Who was the finance minister who enacted several financial reforms during the reign of the Directory?

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Answer

Dominique-Vincent Ramel

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Question

The Coup of Fructidor was a reaction against....

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Answer

Monarchism

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Question

The historians' consensus on the legacy of the French Directory is largely....

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Answer

Negative

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Question

Who pointed a sword at Napoleon and swear to kill him himself if Napoleon were to betray the Republic?

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Answer

Lucien Bonaparte, Napoleon's younger brother.

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When was the French Consulate Established?

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Answer

10 November 1799.

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Question

With the Constitution of the Year ___, Napoleon became First Consul.

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Answer

VIII.

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Who were the French Grenadiers?

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Answer

The French Grenadiers were a group of elite infantry in the French Army.

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Who were the first three consuls of the French Consulate?

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Answer

Napoleon, Sieyès, and Ducos.

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What was the Directory?

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Answer

The Directory was a bicameral legislative body made up of the Council of Five Hundred and the Council of Ancients. The directory was the fourth governing body instated since the start of the revolution in 1789. 

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