Born into a bourgeois family, he served as Minister of Transport from 7 December 1872 – 18 May 1873. He also served as Minister of Interior and Minister of Public Instruction, in which he "carried out aggressively conservative policies by dismissing certain liberal professors and re-establishing censorship."
There he proved a useful adherent to Thiers, who made him minister of public works in December 1872. As minister of education, religion and the fine arts in the reconstructed cabinet of the duc de Broglie he had used his administrative powers to further clerical ends, and as minister of the interior in de Broglie"s cabinet in 1877 he resumed the administrative methods of the Second French Empire.
With a well-known Bonapartist, Baron R. C. F. Reille, as his secretary, he replaced republican functionaries by Bonapartist partisans, reserving a few places for the Legitimists.
He accompanied Marshal MacMahon in his tour through southern France, and the presidential manifesto of September, stating that the president would rely solely on the Senate should the elections prove unfavourable, was generally attributed to Fourtou. In spite of these efforts the cabinet fell, and a commission was appointed to inquire into their unconstitutional abuse of power.
Fourtou was unseated in consequence of the revelations made in the report of the commission. In the Chamber of Deputies Gambetta gave the lie direct to Fourtou"s allegation that the republican party opposed every republican principle that was not antiquated.
A duel was fought in consequence, but neither party was injured.
He was re-elected to the chamber in 1879 and entered the Senate the next year. Failing to secure re-election to the Senate in 1885 he again entered the popular chamber as Legitimist candidate in 1889, but he took no further active part in politics. He died in Paris in 1897 of tuberculosis.