Jean René Follain was born in Canisy, Normandy, France, on August 29, 1903. His maternal grandfather was a notary and his paternal grandfather was a schoolteacher. His father was a professor at the Collège de Saint-Lô, located in a neighboring town. Follain was to study at this institution, where he was awarded a prize for excellence in philosophy, and subsequently wrote one of his finest prose works, Collège, about his experiences there.
In 1921, Jean Follain began his law studies at the law school at Caen and was graduated with honors. As a student, he was also interested in the history of the nineteenth century. In 1923, he went to Paris on a probationary basis with a lawyer and in 1927 became a member of the Paris bar and practiced law until 1952.
Meanwhile, Follain became a part of the group of poets and painters that formed around the review Sagesse, founded by Fernand Marc, where he published his first poems. There he met André Salmon, Pierre Reverdy, Pierre MacOrlan, Léon-Paul Fargue, Guegen, Armen Lubin, Max Jacob, Pierre Minet, Madeleine Israel, Georges Duveaux, and Alfred Gaspart. In 1932, he collaborated with several of these writers to publish in literary journals such as Dernier Carre, Feuillets inutiles, and Montparnasse. His first poems were published in the Nouvelle Revue française, Commerce, Europe, and Cahiers du sud. Follain married Madeleine Denis, a painter, in 1934.
In 1952, Follain quit the bar to become a court magistrate in Charleville, where he remained until 1961. Between 1957 and 1967, he traveled quite extensively all over the world to countries such as Thailand, Japan, Brazil, Peru, the United States, the Ivory Coast, and Senegal. In 1969, he made a film for educational television called Canisy, vu par Jean Follain (Canisy, as seen by Jean Follain), directed by Michel Nicoletti.
Follain was killed accidentally by a car on March 10, 1971, on the Tuileries quay. He had enjoyed an active and distinguished literary career, serving as president of the Friends of Rimbaud; president of the selection committees for the Cazes Prize, the Max Jacob Prize, and the Deux Magots Prize; and assistant secretary general of the French PEN Club.