A last-gasp try from France replacement Gael Fickou denied England what would have been their biggest ever comeback win in a sensational start to the 2014 Six Nations.
Having conceded a try in the first minute and been 16-3 behind with barely a quarter of the contest gone, England had fought back superbly to lead 24-19 with just four minutes left.
Mike Brown's first Test try and another for debutant Luther Burrell came amid 18 unanswered points as early French dominance gave way to English ascendancy deep into the second half.
But with the home crowd reduced to near silence France conjured up one final attack to send the Stade de France into glorious uproar and hand England only their third Six Nations defeat of Stuart Lancaster's tenure.
That the match was a gripping, see-saw thriller will come as little comfort to England's inexperienced team, who came so close to a record-breaking turnaround.
Never before have England come back to win from more than 12 points down in an international, and seldom have they come so close.
The game was only 32 seconds old when England conceded their first try of this season's tournament, Jules Plisson's deflected cross-kick falling perfectly for Yoann Huget on the right wing to gather and step inside the wrong-footed Brown to score in the corner.
Jean-Marc Doussain missed the conversion, and England hit back quickly with an Owen Farrell penalty after repeated drives took them deep into French territory.
France came close to a second try after replacement Alex Goode just managed to snuff out Maxime Medard down the left, but Doussain made it 8-3 after England were penalised at a line-out.
Errors cost the visitors again five minutes later. Tom Wood was turned over midway inside the French half, and when the ball was spread wide Huget side-stepped Goode - who was temporarily playing out of position on the wing.
Huget fed Brice Dulin, whose chip ahead saw both Goode and debutant Jack Nowell beaten by the bounce, allowing Huget to dive over gleefully for his second.
Doussain again missed the conversion from out wide but his second successful penalty made it 16-3 as the home support celebrated and England struggled to exert any sustained control.
Lancaster's men were being out-muscled up front, ceding two fine attacking positions to a scrum penalty and then a turnover five metres from the French line.
But five minutes before half-time they fought their way back into the battle, Danny Care's quick tap-penalty and slaloming run towards the post creating space out wide for Brown to finish brilliantly through a tangle of French arms and bodies.
Farrell missed both the conversion and a subsequent drop-goal just before the interval that would have brought England closer still than 16-8.
But his right boot reduced the deficit to five points soon after, with only desperate French defence denying the stretching Care a try after a battering run from Courtney Lawes.
There was a clear sense of momentum shifting, and confirmation came moments later.
Farrell's sweetly timed pass put Billy Vunipola away at a rumbling pace, and the huge number eight handed off one defender before drawing two others to send Burrell away under the posts.
With Farrell's conversion making it 18-16, this developing England outfit were suddenly on course to make history.
Care extended the lead to 21-16 with the most audacious of drop-goals to make it 18 unanswered points on the bounce, and both coaches threw replacements onto the pitch - including Lee Dickson for the outstanding Care - as the frantic pace began to tell.
England's loose forwards were in the ascendant, Vunipola in particular a constant menace in both attack and defence, and when France did have possession at pace, handling errors hauled them back.
Lancaster sent on the comparatively experienced Brad Barritt for debutant Jack Nowell and Dave Attwood for the excellent Lawes as the game entered the final quarter and chill fingers and nervous hearts increased the error count.
With 12 minutes to go, France won a scrum penalty in front of the posts to allow replacement half-back Maxime Machenaud to bring it back to 21-19, but Goode replied with seven left to give England precious breathing-space.
Mako Vunipola almost bashed his way clear as the minutes ticked away before an untimely knock-on, and with time running out France produced their best rugby of the match to make England pay in the most painful fashion.
After the otherwise faultless Brown had missed a tackle on the rampaging Yannick Nyanga down the left, the ball was spread right to stretch a tired defence, and when Dimitri Szarzewski found fellow replacement Fickou wide right a dummy and the 19-year-old's acceleration took him inside Goode and around behind the posts.
Over went the conversion to make it 26-24, and with it England's hopes.
France, so desperate in last season's competition and scarcely better last autumn, had rescued perhaps the most important victory of coach Phillippe Saint-Andre's troubled tenure.
And while England will take great pride from their stirring fightback, they will rue the tired legs and cruel twist that denied them the perfect start to their own Six Nations campaign.
France: Dulin, Huget, Bastareaud, Fofana, Medard, Plisson, Doussain; Domingo, Kayser, Mas, Flanquart, Pape, Nyanga, Le Roux, Picamoles.
Replacements: Fickou for Bastareaud (74), Machenaud for Doussain (57), Forestier for Domingo (48), Szarzewski for Kayser (43), Slimani for Mas (48), Maestri for Flanquart (43), Burban for Le Roux (41), Chouly for Picamoles (65).
England: Brown, Nowell, Burrell, Twelvetrees, May, Farrell, Care; Marler, Hartley, Cole, Launchbury, Lawes, Wood, Robshaw, B. Vunipola.
Replacements: Goode (for May, 7), Barritt for Nowell (65), Dickson for Care (61), M. Vunipola for Marler (51), T. Youngs for Hartley (58), Attwood for Lawes (67), Morgan for B. Vunipola (65).
Referee: Nigel Owens (WRU)
Touch judges: Alain Rolland (IRFU) Stuart Berry (SARU)
TV: Jim Yuille (SRU)