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Political Factions in the French National Convention

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  • 0:02 The Republic of France
  • 0:43 Factions Galore
  • 2:50 A Battle for Control
  • 4:32 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

By the end of 1792, the French Revolution had entered into a radical phase. Conflict and factions sprang up everywhere, as we shall see in this lesson.

The Republic of France

As 1792 progressed, the French Revolution took a radical turn. King Louis XVI became a prisoner on August 10, and the current ruling body, the Legislative Assembly, was ousted. The citizens of Paris rioted in September, killing over a thousand, including nobles and clergymen. Also that month, a new ruling body took power. The National Convention was supposedly elected by universal male suffrage, but in reality, only 7.5% of Frenchmen voted. On September 21-22, the National Convention abolished the monarchy and declared France a republic.

Factions Galore

The National Convention was not a unified body. Conflicts and power struggles abounded as three main factions arose, two of which vied for control over the third.

The Girondins, led by Jacques-Pierre Brissot, were a relatively moderate group of revolutionaries. They actually supported a constitutional monarchy because they felt it was necessary for the stability of the country. They also hoped to create a decentralized government that focused most of the power in the provinces and that did not interfere too much in the nation's economy. The Girondins talked a lot, but they were not very active.

The Montagnards, on the other hand, were both talkative and aggressive. The members of this party, named for the French word for mountain or mountain-dweller, took their places on the highest benches in the meeting hall - on top of the mountain, so to speak. They were radical and ultra-democratic, and they completely supported the new republic and the abolition of the monarchy.

The Montagnards were composed primarily of the Jacobins and the Cordeliers. The Jacobins, led by Maximilien de Robespierre, longed for a strong, centralized government with economic power. They were ready to push ahead with their plans no matter what the kind of resistance they might meet. The Cordeliers were even more radical than the Jacobins. They advocated direct democracy, atheism, power to the people, and a strong revolutionary army.

In the early days of the National Convention, the Girondins and the Montagnards vied for control over the members of the third faction, the Plain, or Marais (the French word for marsh or swamp). These delegates occupied the lower seats in the meeting hall and actually made up the majority of the National Convention. They tended to be uncommitted and were, therefore, the targets of the Girondins and the Montagnards as these more powerful groups sought to pass their pet projects and make their agendas into law.

A Battle for Control

The National Convention began its life under Girondin control, but these moderates proved to be too cautious for the Montagnards, who called for radical action immediately. Fearing counter-revolutionary activity, the Montagnards soon convinced the members of the Plain to decree death for rebels, empower revolutionary tribunals, and establish watch committees throughout France. On April 6, 1793, the National Convention created the Committee of Public Safety, which was an executive committee charged with the task of 'saving' the revolution from its non-radical opponents.

The moderate Girondins started looking more and more threatening. The citizens of Paris, who were still dealing with the suffering induced by severe inflation and food shortages, were simmering with resentment and anger. The Montagnards decided to make use of that pent-up rage and get rid of the Girondins and take full control of the National Convention once and for all.

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