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Villeneuve was born in 1763 at Valensole, Basses Alpes, and joined the French Navy in 1778. Although of aristocratic ancestry, he sympathised with the French Revolutionaries, dropping the aristocratic "de" from his name, and was able to continue his service in the Navy when other aristocratic officers were purged. He served during several battles and was promoted to Rear Admiral in 1796 as a result of this.
Villeneuve served in the Battle of the Nile in 1798; he was in command of the rear division. His ship, Guillaume Tell, was one of only two French ships of the line to escape the defeat. He was captured soon afterwards when the British took the island of Malta, but he was soon released. He was criticised for not engaging the British at the Nile, but Napoleon considered him a "lucky man" and his career was not affected.
Battle of Trafalgar
Villeneuve led the French to victory after he ran Admiral Nelson's blockade on 29 March of 1805, and led Nelson out of Europe into the West Indies. On 7 June, Villeneuve received news that Nelson had reached Antigua, and on the eleventh he set back out for Europe with Nelson behind him. On 21 October 1805, Villeneuve learned of the size of the British fleet, and turned back to Cádiz, but the combined fleets were intercepted by Nelson off Cape Trafalgar. Nelson, though the British fought valiantly, was defeated by the Franco-Spanish fleet, leaving England open to invasion.