France (16) 26
Try: Huget 2, Fickou
Pens: Doussain 2, Machensaud
England (8) 24
Try: Brown, Burrell
Pens: Farrell 2, Goode
Drop goals: Care
Gael Fickou's 77th minute try shocked England as France began their Six Nations campaign with a dramatic victory at the Stade de France in Paris.
England had looked like completing the most remarkable of comebacks after being 16-3 down inside 22 minutes following two tries from Yoann Huget and two penalties from Jean-Marc Doussain.
Mike Brown's try just before the break sparked England into action and after Owen Farrell's penalty double, Luther Burrell silenced the French crowd as he stormed through for his maiden international try.
Danny Care's drop goal extended the advantage and though Maxime Machenaud gave the French hope, Alex Goode's late penalty looked to have secured the most unlikely of wins.
But following a long France attack England's leg-weariness was exposed as Fickou crashed over with just minutes remaining on the clock in a thrilling climax in the French capital.
Despite having prevailed in six of their last eight meetings, and won two of the previous three games in the French capital, England travelled to France in trepidation following a host of injury blows which forced the selection of another new centre partnership with debutant Luther Burrell partnering Billy Twelvetrees in the centre.
There was inexperience on the wing too with Jonny May, whose only previous cap had come against Argentina in the summer, and Jack Nowell on his maiden international appearance entrusted with spearheading the visitors' thrust in attack.
France were suffering from host of casualties with captain Thierry Dusautoir and half-back Morgan Parra both missing, forcing coach Philippe Saint-Andre to hand a first cap to Jules Plisson at 10.
Though the expectations of the French had been further tempered having suffered three defeats in last year's championship, the trend of Les Bleus claiming the title the year after a British and Irish Lions tour seemingly made them tailor-made to pray on any jadedness.
But few could have expected France to exposed England's frailties as early as the first minute as Plisson's kick-through fortuitously found Huget who beat a hesitant Mike Brown to score inside 35 seconds.
Farrell cut the lead from a penalty but the pressure continued to reign down on the England line, and more worryingly for Stuart Lancaster on a pack, which struggled at the first catch and drive and the concession of a penalty saw the hosts add to their led through Doussain.
A broken nose for May forced the introduction of Goode at full back – with Brown moved to the wing - and the Saracens fullback looked all at sea.
Huget scampered past him on halfway before the subsequent kick-through calamitously perplexed both Goode and Nowell and the pair could only watch on as the France winger waltzed through and scored the easiest of second tries.
The catastrophic manner of which both French tries had come amid a raucous start in Paris typified England's indifferent first half performance while the home side took full advantage in exposing such deficiencies, Doussain's penalty the latest effort to do the damage.
Despite the ease at which France had scored twice in the opening 22 minutes and the threat they caused whenever they had the ball in hand, England were enjoying spells in possession and almost broke through but Goode knocked on five meters from the line after Alexandre Flanquart's last-ditch tackle.
England's possession didn't relent however and they cut the deficit four minutes before half time as Danny Care's quick thinking from a penalty saw Brown eventually fed the ball and his scrambled touch down gave Lancaster's side hope at the break.
Care went just short of the line as England began the second period in stark contrast to how they started the match and though they only took away a second Farrell penalty the French has been warned ahead of an onslaught in the second 40 minutes.
But the French approach which had been clinical and cutting in the first half was suddenly lacklustre and England took full advantage to storm into the lead as Farrell's dummy released Vunipola, who powered through and offloaded to Burrell who went through for his first international try.
France sprung into life but Brown hauled back Wesley Forfana as the centre closed in on the line as the match caught alight in thrilling circumstances.
Possessing the thrust seldom seen in the England backline under Lancaster, France continued to be starved of possession and forced deep into their own half and the away side added to their lead through Care's nonchalant drop-goal.
Saint-Andre's side roused themselves again and Huget again exposed the England defence before the counter led by Nowell almost produced a third try, a sequence of play which typified this frenetic opening Six Nations weekend.
Replacement Machenaud cut the England lead to two but Goode reestablished the advantage as France were guilty of not rolling away in the tackle.
However, England were unable to hold on as a long French attack saw Fickou power through and go in under the posts to provide a late and dramatic climax.
France: 15-Brice Dulin, 14-Yoann Huget, 13-Mathieu Bastareaud, 12-Wesley Fofana, 11-Maxime Medard, 10-Jules Plisson, 9-Jean-Marc Doussain; 1-Thomas Domingo, 2-Benjamin Kayser, 3-Nicolas Mas, 4-Alexandre Flanquart, 5-Pascal Pape, 6-Yannick Nyanga, 7-Bernard Le Roux, 8- Louis Picamoles
Replacements: 16-Dimitri Szarzewski, 17-Yannick Forestier, 18-Rabah Slimani, 19-Yoann Maestri, 20-Antoine Burban, 21-Damien Chouly, 22-Maxime Machenaud, 23-Gael Fickou
England: 15-Mike Brown, 14-Jack Nowell, 13-Luther Burrell, 12-Billy Twelvetrees, 11-Jonny May, 10-Owen Farrell, 9-Danny Care; 1-Joe Marler, 2-Dylan Hartley, 3-Dan Cole, 4-Joe Launchbury, 5-Courtney Lawes, 6-Tom Wood, 7-Chris Robshaw, 8-Billy Vunipola
Replacements: 16-Tom Youngs, 17-Mako Vunipola, 18-Henry Thomas, 19-Dave Attwood, 20-Ben Morgan, 21-Lee Dickson 22-Brad Barritt, 23-Alex Goode.