He was born at Marseilles. His father, Demosthènes Ollivier (1799-1884), was a vehement opponent of the July monarchy, and was returned by Marseilles to the Constituent Assembly in 1848. His opposition to Louis Napoleon led to his banishment after the coup d'etat of December 1851, and he returned to France only in 1860. On the establishment of the short-lived Second Republic his father's influence with Ledru-Rollin secured for Émile Ollivier the position of commissary-general of the department of Bouches-du-Rhône. Ollivier, then twenty-three, had just been called to the Parisian bar. Less radical in his political opinions than his father, he repressed a socialist outbreak at Marseilles, commending himself to General Cavaignac, who made him prefect of the department. He was shortly afterwards removed to the comparatively unimportant prefecture of Chaumont (Haute-Marne), a semi-disgrace perhaps brought about by his father's enemies. He resigned from the civil service to take up practice at the bar, where his brilliant abilities assured his success.
He re-entered political life in 1857 as deputy for the 3rd circumscription of the Seine. His candidature had been supported by the Siècle, and he joined the constitutional opposition. With Alfred Darimon, Jules Favre, JL Hénon and Ernest Picard he formed the group known as Les Cinq, which wrung from Napoleon III some concessions in the direction of constitutional government. The imperial decree of November 24, permitting the insertion of parliamentary reports in the Moniteur, and an address from the Corps Législatif in reply to the speech from the throne, were welcomed by him as a first instalment of reform. This acquiescence marked a considerable change of attitude, for only a year previously a violent attack on the imperial government, in the course of a defence of Étienne Vacherot, brought to trial for the publication of La Démocratie, had resulted in his suspension from the bar for three months. He gradually separated from his old associates, who grouped themselves around Jules Favre, and during the session of 1866-1867 Ollivier formed a third party, which definitely supported the principle of a Liberal Empire.
On the last day of December 1866, Count AFJ Walewski, acting in continuance of negotiations already begun by the duc de Morny, offered Ollivier the ministry of education with the function of representing the general policy of the government in the Chamber. The imperial decree of January 19 1867, together with the promise inserted in the Moniteur of a relaxation of the stringency of the press laws and of concessions in respect of the right of public meeting, failed to satisfy Ollivier's demands, and he refused office. On the eve of the general election of 1869 he published a manifesto, Le 19 janvier, in justification of his policy. The sénatus-consulte of September 8 1869 gave the two chambers the ordinary parliamentary rights, and was followed by the dismissal of Eugène Rouher and the formation in the last week of 1869 of a responsible ministry of which Ollivier was really premier, although that office was not nominally recognized by the constitution.
The new cabinet, known as the ministry of January 2, had a hard task before it, complicated a week after its formation by, the shooting of Victor Noir by Pierre Napoleon Bonaparte. Ollivier immediately summoned the high court of justice for the judgment of Prince Bonaparte and Joachim Murat. The riots following on the murder were suppressed without bloodshed; circulars were sent round to the prefects forbidding them in future to put pressure on the electors in favour of official candidates; Baron Haussmann was dismissed from the prefecture of the Seine; the violence of the press campaign against the emperor, to whom he had promised a happy old age, was broken by the prosecution of Henri Rochefort; and on April 20 a sénatus-consulte was issued which accomplished the transformation of the Empire into a constitutional monarchy. Neither concessions nor firmness sufficed to appease the "Irreconcilables" of the opposition, who since the relaxation of the press laws were able to influence the electorate. On May 8, however, the amended constitution was submitted, on Rouher's advice, to a plebiscite, which resulted in a vote of nearly seven to one in favour of the government. The most distinguished members of the Left in his cabinet--LJ Buffet, Napoleon Daru and Talhouët Roy--resigned in April on the question of the plebiscite. Ollivier himself held the ministry of foreign affairs for a few weeks, until Daru was replaced by the duc de Gramont, destined to be Ollivier's evil genius. The other vacancies were filled by JP Mège and CI Plichon, both of them of Conservative tendencies.
The revival of the candidature of Prince Leopold of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen for the throne of Spain early in 1870 disconcerted Ollivier's plans. The French government, following Gramont's advice, instructed Benedetti to demand from the king of Prussia a formal disavowal of the Hohenzollern candidature. Ollivier allowed himself to be won over by the war party. It is unlikely that he could have prevented the eventual outbreak of war, but he might have postponed it if he had taken time to hear Benedetti's account of the incident. He was outmanoeuvred by Otto von Bismarck, and on July 15 he made a hasty declaration in the Chamber that the Prussian government had issued to the powers a note announcing the rebuff received by Benedetti. He obtained a war vote of 500,000,000 francs, and used the fatal words that he accepted the responsibility of the war "with a light heart," saying that the war had been forced on France. On August 9, with the news of the first disaster, the Ollivier cabinet was driven from office, and its chief sought refuge from the general rage in Italy. He returned to France in 1873, but although he carried on an active campaign in the Bonapartist Estafette his political power was gone, and even in his own party he came into collision in 1880 with Paul de Cassagnac.
During his retirement he employed himself in writing a history of L'Empire liberal, the first volume of which appeared in 1895. The work really dealt with the remote and immediate causes of the war, and was the author's apology for his blunder. The 13th volume showed that the immediate blame could not justly be placed entirely on his shoulders. His other works include:
Ollivier's own view of his political life is given in his L'Empire liberal, which must always be an important "document" for the history of his time; but the book must be treated with no less caution than respect.