Francis was born in Windsor to Lebanese Maronite Catholic parents who had recently immigrated to Canada from Lebanon. He speaks fluent English and Arabic.
Francis is an alumnus of Notre Dame Elementary School and Holy Names Catholic High School, both in Windsor. While in high school, Francis was a major contributor to student life while participating in the student council, and held the office of student body president. He holds a combined honour's degree in chemistry and biochemistry from the University of Western Ontario. He graduated from the University of Windsor Law School and was called to the Bar in 2002.
Prior to entering politics, Francis ran and operated Royal Pita Baking Company with his brothers. Under their stewardship the "mom and pop" operation's distribution quickly expanded to other markets, including London, Ontario, Toronto and 12 U.S. states. In 2003, he was awarded the Windsor Chamber of Commerce Business Excellence Award as the Young Entrepreneur of the Year for his work with Royal Pita.
Francis was first elected to Windsor City Council in a by-election in June 1999, following the resignation of Rick Limoges. He became the youngest city councillor in Windsor's history, beating a record previously held by Limoges, when he was chosen to represent Ward 5 (Riverside / Forest Glade) at the age of 25. Shortly after being elected to city council, Francis enrolled in the University of Windsor Law School. He graduated in 2002 and articled with the international law firm of Miller Canfield Paddock and Stone. Subsequently, Francis was called to the Bar of the Law Society of Upper Canada.
In the November 2000 general election, Francis was re-elected to his Ward 5 seat with the largest majority ever recorded in a Windsor municipal election. As an active member of city council, Francis was involved in many of the city's major committees, agencies and boards. He held the positions of director of Windsor Canada Utilities, member of the Detroit–Windsor Tunnel Commission, chair of the Windsor Licensing Commission and chair of the International Relations Committee.
Francis was first elected mayor in the 2003 municipal election, winning narrowly over fellow councillor Bill Marra. One of his first acts as mayor was to join the planning committee for the 2006 Super Bowl festivities in Detroit, ensuring that Windsor would receive some of the economic benefits of participating in a major tourist event.
He was subsequently re-elected in the 2006 election, garnering 77.56 per cent of the votes cast in the mayoral race, for which 38.2 per cent of registered voters cast a ballot. He won again in the 2010 election, with 56.17% of the vote.
During Francis' mayoralty, Windsor has consistently reduced municipal debt and passed six consecutive budgets with zero tax increases.
Francis announced in March 2014 that he will not run for a fourth term as mayor, and will instead take a job as executive vice-president of the Windsor Family Credit Union beginning on December 1, 2014.
On July 29, 2008, Francis announced one of the most ambitious projects of his mayoral term, a waterfront redevelopment proposal which would transform a struggling section of downtown Windsor into a waterfront park by converting the block bounded by Crawford, Caron and University Avenues — an area which currently consists primarily of parking lots and a disused section of railway track — into an inland marina cut back from the Detroit River, and converting either Chatham Street or Pitt Street into a canal and adjoining boardwalk, which would extend easterly for three blocks from the marina to a spot near the Art Gallery of Windsor, and then from there back to the river at the eastern edge of Dieppe Park.
He appointed Dave Cooke, a former Member of Provincial Parliament, to chair a feasibility study on the proposal. On August 19, councillor Alan Halberstadt criticized Francis for allegedly being secretive about the plan, and in response Cooke was brought in to speak to city council about the plan on September 2.
The project was never commissioned, lacking public support and funding.
On August 7, 2008, Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, already in the midst of pending felony charges, was jailed for violating his bail conditions after travelling to Windsor on July 23 for a meeting with Francis regarding a proposed deal pertaining to the Detroit–Windsor Tunnel, which would have seen the city of Windsor take over operational control of the tunnel in exchange for a $75 million loan to the cash-strapped city of Detroit. Kilpatrick stated that Francis had requested the meeting on short notice, while Francis and other city bureaucrats indicated that the meeting had in fact been at Kilpatrick's request. The meeting resulted in a 14-month investigation by Windsor's Integrity Commissioner, Earl Basse, who cleared Francis of wrongdoing in his relationship with Kilpatrick.
Francis later stated that he was confident that Kilpatrick's resignation on September 4 would not threaten the tunnel deal, indicating that he also had a strong working relationship with Kilpatrick's successor, Ken Cockrel. However, Cockrel himself indicated that he would prefer to renegotiate an alternate agreement to maintain joint management of the tunnel between the two cities.
Following Detroit's July 2013 bankruptcy filing, Francis said that his city would consider purchasing Detroit's half of the Detroit–Windsor Tunnel if it was offered for sale.