Cardinal Panafieu was born on 26 January 1931 in Châtellerault (France). He studied in Albi and Issy-Les-Moulineaux before being ordained for the Archdiocese of Albi on 22 April 1956. He held various parish and chaplaincy positions.
On 18 April 1974 he was appointed Auxiliary Bishop of Annecy, and consecrated by Archbishop Dupuy of Albi on 9 June 1974. He was later made Archbishop of Aix on 30 November 1978.
He was named Coadjutor Archbishop of Marseille on 24 August 1994 and succeeded to the full governance of the Archdiocese on 22 April 1995.
Pope John Paul II elevated him to the College of Cardinals on 21 October 2003.