He was the son of a laborer at Lyon. Forced from childhood to earn his own living, he was enabled to secure an education by bursarships at the Lycée at Lyon and at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris.
In 1870 he was at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, but enlisted in the army, and was wounded and made prisoner in 1871 (during the Franco-Prussian War). In 1874 he became professor of philosophy, and translated several works of Herbert Spencer and of Schopenhauer into French.
His extraordinary aptitude for work secured for him the position of chef de cabinet under Paul Bert, the minister of education, in 1880s. In 1885 he was elected deputy for the département of the Rhône, and distinguished himself in financial questions. He was several times minister, and became minister of finance in the cabinet of Casimir-Perier (from 3 November 1893 to 22 May 1894). On the 5 July 1894 he was elected president of the chamber of deputies. He died on the 12 December 1894, said to be worn out with overwork.