Pierre Mendès-France was born in Paris to a Jewish family whose ancestors fled Portugal for France in the 16th century. He graduated from the University of Paris with a law degree. As a teenager, he joined the Radical Socialist Party and became the youngest member of the French National Assembly in 1932 when he was elected a deputy for the Eure department. In the Popular Front government of Léon Blum, he was appointed Secretary of State for Finance. At the outbreak of World War II, he joined the French Air Force. After France surrendered to Germany, he was arrested by the Vichy government imprisoned on a false charge, but escaped in 1941 and reached London, where he joined the Free French government in exile of Charles de Gaulle.
When de Gaulle returned to Paris at the end of the war, he appointed Mendès-France as Minister for National Economy in the provisional government and later as director of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, as French representative to the United Nations Economic and Social Council.
He was a major opponent of French colonialism, and in 1954 became Prime Minister after campaigning to end the war in Indochina.
He negotiated the independence of Tunisia by 1956, and began discussions with nationalist leaders in Morocco.
He left office in 1955 and resigned as the Radical Party leader in 1957, after a split with Edgar Faure, leader of the conservative wing, over Algeria. He opposed de Gaulle's accession to power in May 1958 and in the elections of that year, he lost his seat in the National Assembly. In 1967, he briefly regained his seat in the National Assembly. He wrote several books on political and economic topics.