Émile Combes was born in Roquecourbe, Tarn. He studied for the priesthood, but abandoned the idea before ordination. His anti-clericalism would later lead him into becoming a Freemason. He was also in later life a spiritualist. He later took a diploma as a doctor of letters (1860). Then he studied medicine, taking his degree in 1867, and setting up in practice at Pons in Charente-Inférieure. In 1881 he presented himself as a political candidate for Saintes, but was defeated. In 1885 he was elected to the senate by the départment of Charente-Inférieure. He sat in the Democratic left, and was elected vice-president in 1893 and 1894. The reports which he drew up upon educational questions drew attention to him, and on 3 November 1895 he entered the Bourgeois cabinet as minister of public instruction, resigning with his colleagues on 21 April following.
He actively supported the Waldeck-Rousseau ministry, and upon its retirement in 1902 he was himself charged with the formation of a cabinet. In this he took the portfolio of the Interior, and the main energy of the government was devoted to an anti-clerical agenda, partly in response to the Dreyfus Affair. The parties of the Left, united upon this question in the Bloc republicain, supported Combes in his application of the law of 1901 on the religious associations, and voted the new bill on the congregations (1904), and under his guidance France took the first definite steps toward the separation of church and state. By 1904, through his efforts, nearly 10,000 religious schools had been closed and thousands of priests and nuns left France rather than be persecuted. 
He was vigorously opposed by all the Conservative parties, who saw the mass closure of church schools as a persecution of religion. His stubborn enforcement of the law won him the applause of ordinary left wingers, who called him familiarly le petit père. However, in October 1904, his Minister of War, General André, was uncovered 'republicanizing' the army by opposing the promotion of practising Catholics. Known as the Affaire Des Fiches, the scandal weakened support for his government. Finally the defection of the Radical and Socialist groups induced him to resign on 17 January 1905, although he had not met an adverse vote in the Chamber. His policy was still carried on; and when the law of the separation of church and state was passed, all the leaders of the Radical parties entertained him at a noteworthy banquet in which they openly recognized him as the real originator of the movement.
Combes's Ministry, 7 June 1902–24 January 1905
- Émile Combes – President of the Council and Minister of the Interior and Worship
- Théophile Delcassé – Minister of Foreign Affairs
- Louis André – Minister of War
- Maurice Rouvier – Minister of Finance
- Ernest Vallé – Minister of Justice
- Charles Camille Pelletan – Minister of Marine
- Joseph Chaumié – Minister of Public Instruction and Fine Arts
- Léon Mougeot – Minister of Agriculture
- Gaston Doumergue – Minister of Colonies
- Émile Maruéjouls – Minister of Public Works
- Georges Trouillot – Minister of Commerce, Industry, Posts, and Telegraphs
- Masonic references in the works of Charles Williams Grand Lodge of British Columbia and Yukon 2007
- Burke, Peter The New Cambridge Modern History p. 304 (1979 Cambridge University)
- Bigots united
- "Emile Combes who boasted of taking office for the sole purpose of destroying the religious orders. He closed thousands of what were not then called 'faith schools'" Bigots united in the Guardian, 9 October 2005
- Burns, MichaelFrance and the Dreyfus Affair: A Documentary History p. 171 (1999 Palgrave Macmillan) ISBN 0312218133
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (Eleventh ed.). Cambridge University Press.