The Directory encouraged this French war effort across Europe, though less as a democratic crusade against tyranny than as a means of resolving the unemployment crisis in France. A large, victorious French army lowered unemployment within France and guaranteed soldiers a steady paycheck to buy the goods they needed to survive. The Directory hoped that this increase in income would encourage an increase in demand, reinvigorating the French economy.

Abuses by the Directory

Unfortunately, it was not long before the Directory began to abuse its power. The results of the elections of 1795 were worrisome to the Directory because a number of moderate royalists won. Although these royalists didn’t exactly qualify as counterrevolutionaries, their loyalty to the Directory was nevertheless suspect.

Then, in May 1796, a group of Jacobins, led by prominent publisher Gracchus Babeuf, met secretly to plan a coup in the hopes of reinstating the government of the Constitution of 1793. Already troubled by the 1795 election results, the Directory squashed the coup plot, had the conspirators arrested, and had Babeuf guillotined.

The Elections and Coup of 1797

As the elections of 1797 drew near, the Directory noticed that significant royalist and neo-Jacobin influences were leaking into the republic, which could have terrible implications for the direction of the legislature. On the other hand, the Directory had to obey the Constitution of 1795 and its mandate for annual elections. It therefore allowed the elections to proceed as scheduled.

However, on September 4, 1797, after the elections did indeed produce decidedly pro-royal and pro-Jacobin results, three members of the Directory orchestrated an overthrow of the legislature, annulling the election results and removing a majority of the new deputies from their seats. The coup plotters also unseated two members of the Directory itself—former military strategist Lazare Carnot being one of them—and installed two new directors, further ensuring that the government would remain staunch in its moderate stance.

Popular Discontent

This new Directory was powerfully conservative, initiating strong new financial policies and cracking down on radicalism through executions and other means. However, the coup and the Directory’s subsequent abuses of power destroyed all of the government’s credibility and further disillusioned the French populace. In the elections of 1798, the left made gains, feeding on public anger about the coup and the reinstatement of the military draft.

Popular pages: The French Revolution (1789–1799)