Félix François Faure was born in Paris, the son of the small furniture maker Jean-Marie Faure (1809–1889) and his first wife Rose Cuissard (1819–1852). Having started as a tanner and merchant at Le Havre, he acquired considerable wealth, was elected to the National Assembly on 21 August 1881, and took his seat as a member of the Left, interesting himself chiefly in matters concerning economics, railways and the navy. In November 1882 he became under-secretary for the colonies in Ferry's ministry, and retained the post till 1885. He held the same post in Tirard's ministry in 1888, and in 1893 was made vice-president of the chamber.
In 1894 he obtained cabinet rank as minister of marine in the administration of Charles Dupuy. In the following January he was unexpectedly elected President of the Republic upon the resignation of President Casimir-Perier. The principal cause of his elevation was the determination of the various sections of the moderate republican party to exclude Henri Brisson, who had had a plurality of votes on the first ballot, but had failed to obtain an absolute majority. To accomplish this end it was necessary to unite the party, and unity could only be secured by the nomination of someone who offended no one. Faure answered perfectly to this description.
In 1895 he granted amnesty to the anarchist movements, enabling the return from exile in England of several famous anarchists, such as Émile Pouget.
In 1897 he met Marguerite Steinheil, who subsequently became his mistress. This scandalous high-profile liaison has been the subject of works of fiction such as The President's Mistress, aired on Eurochannel, with Cristiana Reali in Steinheil's role.
His fine presence and his tact on ceremonial occasions rendered the state some service when in 1896 he received the Tsar at Paris, and in 1897 returned his visit, after which meeting the Franco-Russian Alliance was publicly announced again.
The latter days of Faure's presidency were consumed by the Dreyfus affair, which he was determined to regard as chose jugée (Latin: res judicata, "adjudicated with no further appeal"). This drew against him the criticism of pro-Dreyfus intellectuals and politicians, such as Émile Zola and Georges Clemenceau.