Even if political parties as we understand them didn't exist at the time, the French revolutionaries tended to organize themselves on common interests, shared ideals and vision of governments, as well as means on how to bring it about. This meeting ground resulted in factions, sub-factions and splinter groups. Some of the factions though, were even less homogeneous and more akin to social categories, like the Sans-culottes. The very concepts of political "left" and "right" which still organize the nowadays political life originate in the French Revolution.
Broadly speaking, the parties can be divided into popular groups and clubs:
- The Popular Movement is characterized by collective actions, leaderlessness, spontaenity, improvisation as well as amateurish stunt-making, excessive violence and lack of organization. Though many of these in imitation of the political clubs, formed popular societies to match their skills. These people were at the heart of all the great events of the Revolution from the Fall of the Bastille to the Insurrections that drove out the King and the Girondin ministry. Their alliance with the Jacobins in the Year of the Terror proved decisive in securing France.
- Political Clubs as the name suggests were communal meeting grounds where people gathered to discuss revolutionary ideas and political concepts that would solve emerging crisis. Clubs by their nature were more organized, more middle-class and professional in outlook than the popular movement. They tended to operate in a fashion not very different from say, a political machine or a lobby, and attracted ambitious men (women were never allowed members in the major clubs) seeking careers in the government bureaucracy. They came out of the Estates-General and ran parallel to the popular movement which nonetheless energized it.
Sans-Culottes and the Sections
A loose, leaderless faction composed of everyone from militant women, ex-actors, shopkeepers, rabble-rousers, demagogues, ex-aristocrats, dissident priests and real trouble-makers. The Sans-Culottes remain so called because of their distinct fashion style. Mostly poor people wearing clothes with no breeches, they became Icon of Rebellion at the time, the image and representative of the popular movement. They were initially seen as highly romantic figures by the middle-class revolutionaries and politicians, and the Phrygian Cap became the legendary symbol thanks to their efforts. It was this group of people, largely leaderless, anonymous and unknown that led the Storming of the Bastille, the Champs de Mars protest, the Insurrections against the King (August 10) and the Girondins (May-June 1793). They were also responsible for the events of the September Massacres and other scenes of street violence.
Politically, the sans-culottes were all over the map. While later generations would see them as the prototype of the urban working-class/proletariat, they were actually a Ragtag Bunch of Misfits, that included small-businessmen, out of work artisans, unemployed youth, low-rent actors and actresses, and even, strangely enough, aristocrats who started Slumming It hippie-style. One of these aristocrats was none other than Marquis de Sade, an Impoverished Patrician who went into the Bastille a sex-offender and came out (two weeks before quatorze juillet) a quasi-anarchist.
One thing the sans-culottes did have in common, however, was that they were basically all Parisians. Their nearest thing to organization was the newly formed Paris Commune, the civic body of the defiantly revolutionary city. The various sections of Paris were administered with direct democracy, which furthered the Commune's link to the popular movement. And on the substantive issues of the day, if there was one thing the sans-culottes could agree on, it was this: Feed Paris. To many sans-culottes, most any policy could be justified if it would make bread cheap in the capital. This naturally led to mass political action—i.e. protests and rioting—every time events conspired to increase the cost of food in Paris, to which the national government inevitably responded, because, y'know, they were in Paris, and wouldn't you know it, they had no interest in getting lynched by a mob of angry Parisians. Since the 1770s, various French governments had tried several times to fix the underlying problems that caused the price of bread to be so high, but (frustratingly) every time a long-term fix was enacted, there would be a bad harvest for reasons totally out of the government's control, forcing the government to undo the long-term fix and often make the problem worse by enacting some popular-in-Paris but otherwise ruinous economic policy (most notoriously, the General Maximum). The unruliness of the Paris Commune, their incredible energy and canny instinct for political chicanery meant that several factions tried in vain to neutralize them—or in the case of Girondins, try and move the capital out of Paris.
Among revolutionaries, Marat was highly popular with the sans-culottes, while others such as Jacques Roux (with the Enragés) and journalist Jacques Hebert (simply Hébertists) formed factions of extremists among them. Marat played a key part in the Jacobin/Sans-culottes alliance that toppled the Girondins but after his assassination, they lacked another figure to bridge that role. When the Committee of Public Safety purged the Hebertists and arrested Roux, they also banned several other organizations from assembling. This largely ended the popular movement and several sans-culottes either joined the army, took advantage of new opportunities or returned to their former lives of poverty and anonymity.
EnragésThe Enragés were a small group of members of the Convention led by the priest Jacques Roux. Closely associated with the Sans-culottes, they were more leftist than Marat but not demagogues, unlike Hébert. Marat wrote several scathing papers against them. Roux advocated direct democracy, the abolition of private property, and progressive taxation, while abhoring any kind of speculation, be it financial or on food prices. His ideas later inspired Babeuf and he can be seen as an ancient precursor of anarchism, socialism, and every priest in line with the Liberation theology.
Roux was arrested in September 1793 and committed suicide in his cell in February 1794.
Officially known as the Society of the Friends of the Constitution, located in the Convent of the Jacobins, Rue Saint-Honoré. "Jacobins" was a nickname for the Dominican order, originating from the location of their main convent Rue Saint-Jacques ("Jacobus" in Latin, hence the nickname). The Jacobins became in the course of events the most radical and influential party of the Revolution.
Initially, it was a political club where people gathered to discuss ideas. It was largely comprised of members of the middle-class - businessmen, bankers, lawyers, and other notables. It also had high membership fees and restricted itself to men only, though under Robespierre's leadership, women often attended their meetings in the galleries for public debates. These facts are usually glossed over in later interpretations of Jacobins as radical leftist/proto-Bolshevik party. The Jacobins had a network of subsidiary clubs across France, which at its height counted 500,000 members. They often gathered at clubs and publicly discussed ideas and issues in regions. They also distributed pamphlets and government missives they had printed themselves. This wide network proved useful during the Reign of Terror where the Jacobins organizational competence proved effective in centralizing authority and defending France.
Among people who were members of the Jacobin Club at various stages were Mirabeau, L'Abbé Sieyes, Brissot, Robespierre, Saint-Just, Danton (who was also a member of the Cordeliers), Marat, the priest Henri Grégoire, and in Corsica, Napoléon Bonaparte.
Officially named the Society of the Friends of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Like the Jacobins, it was located in a former convent, Convent of the Cordeliers (another name for the Franciscans), in the street of the same name. As there was no fixed cotisation for membership (people donated what they wanted near the entry), it was much more popular in its composition than the Jacobins, and thus more in touch with the sans-culottes opinion.
Several very important revolutionaries were Cordeliers: Danton, Marat, Desmoulins and Hébert. Unlike the Jacobins who allied with the Popular Movement very late in the revolution (with considerable reluctance as well), the Cordeliers had a more collegial atmosphere. Its influence declined when the Terror officially went into effect. Marat was dead, Danton had briefly retired from politics and the Cordeliers were run by Hebertists much to the dislike of Desmoulins. The latter started a campaign to reclaim the club and its vision away from the Hebert, even titling his newspaper ("Le Vieux Cordelier") to attack them for their extremism. Desmoulins even had the early support of Robespierre but it all fell apart when his articles attacked both the Committee of Public Safety and the Hebertists, compromising both the extreme and moderate elements of the Club in their eyes. In the end, both sides got purged and this spelled the doom of the popular movement in toto.
The Cordeliers were much more proactive than the Jacobins. They were the ones who organized the petition in the Champ-de-Mars asking for the destitution of Louis XVI after the Flight to Varennes. They also played a key role in the successive falls of the Monarchy and the Girondins.
Tropes as portrayed in fiction:
- Written by the Winners: Since they were eliminated by the Jacobins, the importance of the Cordeliers is often downplayed.
The Feuillants were a result of a schism among the Jacobins in the aftermath of the flight of Louis XVI. The overwhelming majority, still supportive of the constitutional monarchy in spite of what happened, abandoned Robespierre and a handful of now republican members one month after Varennes (July 1791). Like the Cordeliers and the Jacobins, the Feuillants took their name from the convent where they settled. They were influent from summer 1791 to spring 1792, with several ministers in government. They tried to convince the King to play by the constitutional rules but the royal Court (especially Marie Antoinette) despised them and wouldn't listen to their advice. In March 1792, Girondins campaigned for war and managed to replace at government the divided Feuillants, who were lukewarm to downright hostile to war. The Feuillants quickly faded into irrelevance, and ceased to exist after the fall of the Monarchy, 10th August 1792. Their two most prominent leaders were Antoine Barnave and La Fayette. They were arrested after the fall of Monarchy and some of its leaders were executed in the wake of the Queen's trial.
The Girondins was never a single club or party, but a loose group of politicians led by Jacques-Pierre Brissot, a journalist and pamphleteer. Other members of note were François Buzot, Charles Barabaroux, Marquis de Condorcet, Jérôme Pétion, Monsieur Jean-Marie and Madame Manon Roland, Charlotte Corday and Pierre Vergniaud. The Girondins were all Jacobins themselves at the height of their influence until Robespierre and others kicked them out. In their day they were described as Brissotins or Rolandins (after their leaders). The term Girondin comes from the Gironde, the provincial region with Bordeaux at its capital, that formed (along with Lyon) the main support base for the Girondins. The term was used by later historians rather than people of that era.
The Girondins came to power in the short-lived Legislative Assembly that followed the National Assembly. Towards the end of the National Constituant Assembly, Robespierre put forth a "Self-denying ordinance" that meant that none of its members could be elected in following Legislative assembly, including himself. This would be cited by later historians Benjamin Constant and François Furet as highly destabilizing, since it prevented politicians who had gained two years of experience from continuing to govern into the stage of consolidation. It also backfired on Robespierre himself since he had no political platform to argue against Girondin policies he regarded as highly dubious. Chief among these was the 1792 Declaration of War. The Girondins faction favored an unworkable government with the capital moved away from Paris while the Jacobins wanted a centralized state. They also proved hesitant to reforms and kept backtracking on the trial of the King. Even when several of them voted for his execution, they sought to delay it or put it on a public appeal, which the Jacobins felt would destabilize the government further. In the end, the schism between them became more and more intense leading to the May-June Insurrection of 1793, the arrest, trial and execution of its leaders and the first major purge of the Revolution.