France 26 England 24
England endured a heartbreaking defeat in their RBS 6 Nations opener in Paris as France substitute Gael Fickou struck with a late try that Maxime Machenaud converted to snatch victory.
Having drawn on their reserves of character to overcome a 16-3 deficit built on two opening-quarter tries from wing Yoann Huget, the visitors looked comfortable as they established a 24-19 lead.
But Fickou scored a superb try courtesy of some dazzling footwork to shatter Stuart Lancaster’s side.
England launched their campaign in Paris that saw wing Jack Nowell and centre Luther Burrell make debuts.
Jonny May won his second cap on the left wing in an inexperienced backline, while Jules Plisson made his Test bow as Les Bleus’ fly-half.
Underdogs England had predicted a ferocious onslaught from France’s pack in a match that was expected to be pivotal to the Six Nations title race.
England endured a wretched start as they slipped behind with just 31 seconds on the clock, though luck played a role in France's try.
The kick-off sailed over the head of Joe Launchbury and was knocked on by Nowell. France kept hold of possession and spun the ball right where Plisson chipped ahead.
It was an ugly kick and not quite what the Stade Francais fly-half had in mind, but it bounced away from Mike Brown and into the hands of Yoann Huget who raced over.
England settled immediately and attacked with purpose, Burrell making ground down the left before being swamped by the cover defence.
Owen Farrell and Jean-Marc Doussain swapped penalties as a full-blooded opening quarter continued.
England number eight Billy Vunipola dropped a pass and centre Billy Twelvetrees kicked instead of exploiting an overlap.
Disaster struck for a second time in the 17th minute when flanker Tom Wood had the ball stripped from him in the middle of the pitch in an act that was the prelude to France’s second try.
There appeared to be little on, but a weak tackle by substitute Alex Goode on Huget allowed the wing to offload to Brice Dulin.
The full-back chipped ahead and once again England were deceived by the bounce, enabling Huget to score.
Wood was at the centre of a large scuffle as France took exception to a tackle that was marginally late, but no meaningful punches were thrown and the Northampton blindside escaped punishment.
A collapsed scrum enabled Doussain to add another penalty and England’s bad luck continued when Goode – who had replaced blood injury victim Jonny May - danced free of Dulin only to knock on.
France’s scrum was gaining an important foothold in the game and when another set-piece collapsed, the visitors lost another attacking opportunity.
Just as critically it enabled the favourites to probe once again and Picamoles made ground before Dulin hacked ahead and this time the ball bounced off the flag and out of reach.
Both sides were looking for the offload at every opportunity only to gift the ball to the opposition, but their ambition was making for an entertaining match.
Finally England’s attack clicked when a series of drives resulted in a ragged French defence that was exploited when Vunipola fed Brown, who forced his way through three blue shirts to touch down on the line.
Care was only fractionally short when touching down as England made a barnstorming start to the second half, built on Farrell's clever kick into the corner.
The Saracens fly-half landed a penalty and Harlequins team-mates Care and Brown were again heavily involved as the French were shoved backwards.
The tide was turning and England’s dominance finally made an impact on the scoreboard when they took the lead with Burrell’s 48th-minute try.
Vunipola blasted a hole through the midfield and offloaded out of the tackle to Burrell who had picked a superb line that led him straight over the whitewash.
A try-saving tackle by Twelvetrees on Fofana kept France at bay, while at the other end a drop-goal from Care extended England’s lead to five points.
France refused to throw in the towel as they made occasional visits into the opposition 22, but when Nowell forced his way into space it was clear the best moments were belonging to England.
Substitute Maxime Machenaud landed three points and Goode replied in the same vein and the game had become a cagey exchange of kicks, waiting for the opposition to commit an error.
But it was not a mistake that enabled France to break from their half and snatch the lead with three minutes remaining.
Dimitri Szarzewski showed great awareness to delay his pass to Gael Fickou and the wing stepped inside England’s cover and sprinted in under the posts.
And Machenaud’s successful conversion left stunned England holding their heads in despair.