The magazine was co-founded by Jean-Jacques Servan Schreiber, future president of the Radical Party, and Françoise Giroud, who had earlier edited ELLE and went on to become France's first Minister of Women's Affairs in 1974 and Minister of Culture in 1976. The magazine was supportive of the policies of Pierre Mendès-France in Indochina, and in general had a left-of-centre orientation. The magazine opposed the war in Algeria, and especially the use of torture.. In March 1958, as a result of an article of Jean-Paul Sartre reviewing the book La Question by Henri Alleg, the magazine was prevented from being published by the French Government. In order to resume publication, L'Express had to print a new issue without the incriminated article. François Mauriac was a regular contributor, with his Bloc-Notes column but left L'Express when Charles De Gaulle returned to power.
In 1964, a number of journalists, including Jean Daniel and André Gorz, quit L'Express to found Le Nouvel Observateur. Servan-Schreiber turned l'Express into a less politically engaged publication, and the circulation rose from 150,000 to 500,000 copies in 3 years.
In 1971, as a result of Servan-Schreiber's political activities as a deputy of the Radical Party, nine journalists of L'Express, including Claude Imbert, left the magazine and created Le Point to counter what they perceived as the "current breed of French intellectuals in the press and elsewhere, with their leftist dogmas and complacent nihilism."..
He was replaced by Yves Cuau in May 1981. In 1987, L'Express was sold to C. G. E.. Yann de l'Ecotais became the new director, until 1994 when he was replaced by Christine Ockrent. In 1995, L'Express was sold to CEP communications, a filial of Havas. Denis Jeambar became the new director.
In 1998, after Vivendi took control of Havas, the magazine returned under its control. After the collapse of Vivendi, L'Express was sold in 2002 to Socpresse (80% owned by Dassault Group). It has been bought in 2006 by long term partner Roularta. In 2008 L'Express reaches 2,3 million readers each week through its magazine and nearly 2 million internet users every month.