He was born in Paris, the son of General Alexandre de Girardin and of Madame Dupuy, wife of a Parisian advocate. His first publication was a novel, Émile, dealing with his birth and early life, and appeared under the name of Girardin in 1827. He became inspector of fine arts under the Martignac ministry just before the revolution of 1830, and was an energetic and passionate journalist. Besides his work on the daily press he issued miscellaneous publications which attained an enormous circulation. His Journal des connaissances utiles had 120,000 subscribers, and the initial edition of his Almanack de France (1834) ran to a million copies.
In 1836 he inaugurated cheap journalism in a popular Conservative organ, La Presse, the subscription to which was only forty francs a year. This undertaking involved him in a duel with Armand Carrel, the fatal result of which made him refuse to take part in any more. In 1839 he was excluded from the Chamber of Deputies, to which he had been four times elected, because he was said to have been born in Switzerland, but was admitted in 1842. He resigned early in February 1847, and on February 24, 1848 sent a note to Louis Philippe demanding his resignation and the regency of the duchess of Orleans.
In the Legislative Assembly he voted with the Mountain. He pressed eagerly in his paper for the election of Prince Louis Napoleon, one of whose most violent opponents he later became. In 1856, he sold La Presse, only to resume it in 1862, but its vogue was over, and Girardin started a new journal, La Liberty, the sale of which was forbidden in the public streets. He supported Emile Ollivier and the Liberal Empire, but plunged into vehement journalism again to advocate war against Prussia.
Of his many subsequent enterprises the most successful was the purchase of Le Petit Journal, which served to advocate the policy of Thiers, though he himself did not contribute. The crisis of May 16, 1877, when Jules Simon fell from power, made him resume his pen to attack MacMahon and the party of reaction in La France and in Le Petit Journal. Émile de Girardin married in 1831 Delphine Gay, and after her death in 1855 Guillemette Josephine Brunold, countess von Tieffenbach, widow of Prince Frederick of Nassau. He was divorced from his second wife in 1872.
The long list of his social and political writings includes: