He was born at St Céré (Lot) and educated at St Cyr; he received a commission as sub-lieutenant in 1828, becoming lieutenant in 1833. He went to Algeria in 1835, served in the expedition to Mascara, at the capture of Tlemcen, and in 1837 was promoted to captain. In the same year he received the Légion d'honneur for courageous conduct. In 1839 he was employed in organizing a battalion of the French Foreign Legion for the Carlist Wars. In 1841 he was again serving in Africa. Promoted lieutenant-colonel in 1846 and colonel of the 3rd regiment in 1847, he commanded the expedition against Ahmed Sghir in 1848, and defeated the Arabs at the Djerma Pass. Transferred to the Zouaves, he defeated the Kabyles, and in 1849 displayed both courage and energy in reinforcing the blockaded garrison of Bou Sada, and in command of one of the attacking columns at Zaatcha (December 1849). For his valour on the latter occasion he received the rank of general of brigade and the commandership of the Legion of Honour. He led the expedition against Narah in 1850 and destroyed the Arab stronghold.
Summoned to Paris, he was made aide-de-camp to the president, Louis Napoleon, and took part in the coup d'état of December 2 1851. In the Crimean War he commanded a division at the Battle of Alma, where he was twice wounded. He held a dormant commission entitling him to command in case of St Arnaud's death, and he thus succeeded to the chief command of the French army a few days after the battle. He was slightly wounded and had a horse killed under him at Inkerman, when leading a charge of Zouaves. Disagreements with the English commander-in-chief and, in general, the disappointments due to the prolongation of the siege of Sevastopol led to his resignation of the command, but he did not return to France, preferring to serve as chief of his old division almost up to the fall of Sevastopol.
After his return to France he was sent on diplomatic missions to Denmark and Sweden, and made a marshal and senator of France (grand cross Legion of Honour, and honorary G.C.B.). He commanded the III army corps in Lombardy in 1859, distinguishing himself at Magenta and Solférino. He successively commanded the camp at Chalons, the IV army corps at Lyons and the army of Paris. In the Franco-Prussian War he commanded the VI army corps, which won the greatest distinction at the Battle of Gravelotte, where Canrobert commanded on the St Privat position. The VI corps was amongst those shut up in Metz and included in the surrender of that fortress.
After the war Canrobert was appointed a member of the superior council of war, and was also active in political life,, being elected senator for Lot in 1876 and for Charente in 1879 and again in 1885. He died at Paris and received a public funeral. His memoirs (Souvenirs) were published in 1898 at Paris.