1794-99: les Années Folles of Thermidor and the Directory

This tile covers the mid-1790s, as France recovered from the violence of the earlier part of the decade.


The fall of Robespierre

Maximilien Robespierre held a vice-like grip on the National Convention from mid-1793 to the summer of 1794. In that time he executed countless rivals and oversaw the most brutally violent period of the Revolution.


Eventually, however, he overreached himself. By July 1794, Robespierre had created such a culture of fear in the National Convention that even his closest allies felt that he had to be deposed. The tide of opinion had already turned heavily against Robespierre, but the straw that broke the camel’s back was his attempt to accuse Joseph Cambon, a fellow member of the National Convention, of conspiracy. Everyone knew that the accusations were unfounded, and the Montagnards turned on their leader and had him executed in July 1794.

This marked the end of the Terror, and the rise of a more moderate faction – most members of the National Convention recognized that the violence had gone too far.

The Thermidor regime

Thermidor is the name of the month in the revolutionary calendar when Robespierre’s execution happened.

After his deposition, the National Convention was briefly dominated by the Thermidor regime.

This was a collection of moderates who sought to wrestle power away from the radical Montagnards who had dominated the Convention. They put an end to the Terror, but were fairly brutal with their opponents – executing many of the Montagnards and effectively suppressing left-wing thought in the Convention.

Directory: an attempt at a pacified, bourgeois republic

In October 1795, the ailing Convention breathed its last when a new Constitution was adopted:

The new government was known as ‘The Directory’. The Head of State role was filled by a collective of 5 Directors. The legislative power was split between a low and a high chamber. The system was closer to aristocratic republics or to the United States.

Unfortunately the Directory regime was marred by rampant corruption and constant coup attempts, by radical Jacobins or Monarchists.

The Directors, led by Paul Barras, held the center for the many bourgeois liberals who had benefited from the sale of clergy or nobility estates, and feared both a return to absolute monarchy and another Reign of Terror.

Incroyables et merveilleuses

The era right after the First World War was known in France as ‘les années folles,’ a period of artistic exuberance when the country was experiencing a breeze of relief after the horrors it had lived through.

The Revolution had its own ‘années folles’ after the Terror. Extravagant fashions and literary sub-cultures blossomed, with the most fashionable young lads and ladies being known as ‘les Incroyables et les Merveilleuses.’

This was a time when people were pushing the boundaries of fashion and society. Men would wear outrageous clothes, such as long coats and scarves, and women would wear short skirts and dresses. They would also wear a lot of makeup and jewelry.

This trend was not just limited to fashion; it extended to behavior too. People began to indulge in more extravagant activities such as gambling at casinos or attending lavish parties where they could show off their wealth and status.

War, still

Since 1792, the Republic had been in a state of continuous war. The Directory was mostly victorious in these, making conquests or creating ‘sister republics’ in regions where even Louis XIV wouldn’t have dreamt to tread, like Belgium or northern Italy.

By 1796, the war went deeper into Italy. Since the 1500s, the region had been under Austrian domination. Several French Kings had attempted to invade Italy, but none had ever succeeded.

However, in 1797, a young French commander led the French army to extraordinary success in Italy – even taking Rome and imprisoning the Pope.

This young commander was Napoléon Bonaparte, and his success in Italy was the first of many conquests that would make him the most powerful man France has ever seen.

The end of the Revolution

Traditional periodization places the end of the Revolution in 1799. This was when Napoléon Bonaparte finally returned to France, after numerous succesful campaigns.

With Napoléon’s conquest of Italy in 1798, he instantly became a national hero. The Directory were pleased at the success of France abroad.

However, Napoléon’s popularity greatly concerned the Directeurs, who sent him away to conquer Egypt, clearly hoping he would never come back. While he didn’t conquer Egypt, he did see significant successes there — enough to ensure even greater popular support back home.

He returned from his campaign on Egypt with one intention – to seize power. On 18 Brumaire (9th of November, 1799), Bonaparte deposed the Directory. The new regime, the Consulate, was tailor-made: although some hoped that this soldier would just be a figurehead, he quickly assumed complete power. Five short years later, he would be the Emperor.

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