He was the son of a banker of Dauphiny, and after receiving his early education at a lyceum, was sent in 1813 to the École Polytechnique. In March 1814 he was one of the band of students who, on the heights of Montmartre and Saint-Chaumont, attempted resistance to the armies of the allies then engaged in the investment of Paris. In consequence of this outbreak of patriotic enthusiasm, the school was soon after closed by Louis XVIII, and the young student was compelled to seek some other career instead of that of the soldier.
He first engaged himself to a country wine merchant, for whom he travelled in Germany, Russia and the Netherlands. In 1821 he entered a banking-house newly established at St Petersburg, but returned two years later to Paris, where he was appointed cashier to the Caisse Hypothécaire. At the same time he became a member of the secret society of the Carbonari. In 1825 a new turn was given to his thoughts and his life by the friendship which he formed with Olinde Rodriguez, who introduced him to Saint-Simon. He embraced the new doctrines with ardour, and by 1829 had become one of the acknowledged heads of the sect.
After the Revolution of 1830 Enfantin resigned his office of cashier, and devoted himself wholly to his cause. Besides contributing to the Globe newspaper, he made appeals to the people by systematic preaching, and organized centres of action in some of the principal cities of France. The headquarters in Paris were removed from the modest rooms in the Rue Taranne, and established in large halls near the Boulevard Italien. Enfantin and Bazard were proclaimed "Pères Suprêmes." This union of the supreme fathers, however, was only nominal. A divergence was already manifest, which rapidly increased to serious difference and dissension. Bazard had devoted himself to political reform, Enfantin to social and moral change; Bazard was organizer and governor, Enfantin was teacher and consoler; the former attracted reverence, the latter love. A hopeless antagonism arose between them, which was widened by Enfantin's announcement of his theory of the relation of man and woman, which would substitute for the "tyranny of marriage" a system of "free love."
Bazard now separated from his colleague, and in his withdrawal was follbwed by all those whose chief aim was philosophical and political. Enfantin thus became sole "father," and the few who were chiefly attracted by his religious pretensions and aims still adhered to him. New converts joined them, and Enfantin assumed that his followers in France numbered 40,000. He wore on his breast a badge with his title of "Père," was spoken of by his preachers as "the living law," declared, and probably believed, himself to be the chosen of God, and sent out emissaries in a quest of a woman predestined to be the "female Messiah," and the mother of a new Saviour. The quest was very costly and altogether fruitless, No such woman was discoverable.
Meanwhile believers in Enfantin and his new religion were multiplying in all parts of Europe. His extravagances and success at length brought down upon him the hand of the law. Public morality was in peril, and in May 1832 the halls of the new sect were closed by the government, and the father, with some of his followers, appeared before the tribunals. He now retired to his estate at Menilmontant, near Paris, where with forty disciples, all of them men, he continued to carry out his socialistic views. In August of the same year he was again arrested, and on his appearance in court he desired his defence to be undertaken by two women who were with him, alleging that the matter was of special concern to women. This was of course refused. The trial occupied two days and resulted in a verdict of guilty, and a sentence of imprisonment for a year with a small fine.
This prosecution finally discredited the new society. Enfantin was released in a few months, and then, accompanied by some of his followers, he went to Egypt. He stayed there two years, and might have entered the service of the viceroy if he would have professed himself, as a few of his friends did, a Mahommedan. On his return to France, a sadder and practically a wiser man, he settled down to very prosaic work. He became first a postmaster near Lyons, and in 1841 was appointed, through the influence of some of his friends who had risen to posts of power, member of a scientific commission on Algeria, which led him to engage in researches concerning North Africa and colonization in general.