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The Directory, justifiably fearing the opposition’s gains, once again nullified almost one-third of the election results, ensuring that its own policies would remain strongly in place. Public dissatisfaction was an obvious result, and the next elections would have the lowest turnout of any during the Revolution. Meanwhile, inflation was continuing unchecked, leading the public to wonder whether a royal return to power wouldn’t be more beneficial. Trust and faith in the government neared an all-time low.
As the government’s credibility took a turn for the worse, so too did French military fortunes. In 1799, Napoleon’s seemingly unstoppable forward progress ran into a roadblock in Egypt, and France’s army in general faced simultaneous threats from Britain, Austria, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire. Hearing of the bedlam taking place in mainland Europe, as well as within in his own country, Napoleon deserted his men and headed back to France.
The failing war efforts amplified the French people’s distrust of the Directory, and large majorities of the French public began calling for peace at home and abroad. In May 1799, the upper house of the legislature, the Council of Five Hundred, elected Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès—of “What Is the Third Estate?” fame—to the Directory. This election was the result of extensive maneuvering on Sieyès’s part.
Sieyès, however, did not want to keep his newfound power for himself but instead intended to use it to protect the French government from future instability and disturbances. Therefore, he enlisted the aid of Napoleon, with whom he began to plan a military coup to topple the very same Directory on which Sieyès himself served. This coup materialized on November 9, 1799, when Napoleon, who had returned to France, overthrew the Directory. The next day, Napoleon dissolved the legislature and instituted himself as first consul, the leader of a military dictatorship. By imposing this state of military rule that would grip France for fifteen years, Napoleon effectively ended the French Revolution.
Although it was the Directory that had encouraged the French army’s actions, ultimately, the army’s unprecedented success in its outward expansion actually ended up working against the Directory rather than for it. Being away from home for so long, the respective companies of soldiers—particularly those under the control of Napoleon—formed their own identities and group philosophies. By splitting the spoils of each successful campaign with his own troops, Napoleon earned the steadfast devotion of what amounted to a private army. This loyalty would prove essential to the success of his eventual coup and the years of military rule and expansionism that would follow.
Sieyès’s political maneuvering may seem inexplicable at first, as he essentially finagled his way into power in the Directory just so he could use that power to remove himself from it. Though that explanation is an oversimplification, it illuminates Sieyès’s priorities and demonstrates the depth of the revolutionary spirit that prompted him to make such a sacrifice. To Sieyès, it was clear that, at the time, a military rule under the watch of someone such as Napoleon would be far more beneficial to France than the argumentative, corrupt, and generally ineffective system that was in place. Indeed, though Napoleon would lead as a dictator of sorts, he would do so with much more respect for the spirit of liberty and equality than the originators of the French Revolution had pursued.
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