But France always held the upper hand and two tries from visiting full back Djibril Camara either side of the half-time break in front of the Sky cameras condemned England to a second straight defeat in the competition.
England enjoyed early territory and kicked to the corner to set up a first real attack of the encounter. Full back Greig Tonks looked set to make the line after neat hands down the right wing but lost the ball in the tackle and France hacked clear.
The visitors responded with full back Camara chipping over the top and collecting before releasing Antonin Raffault who was hauled up short of the whitewash before another loose ball was kicked clear.
France looked to score the first try of the night when left wing Leo Griffoul showed quick feet to scamper over the line. England looked to hold him up as he crashed over and referee Stefano Penne went to the TMO for a judgement before disallowing the effort.
From the resulting scrum the French again pushed over from close range and this time the score was given with hooker Benoit Guyot given the score and Pierre Bernard adding the extras for an early 7-0 lead.
England looked to respond immediately and captain Luke Eves made a darting break before a penalty allowed Newcastle fly half Rory Clegg to cut the lead back.
The hosts were threatening around the fringes and a number of close breaks nearly went for England before Clegg's cross field kick just failed to find wing Seb Stegmann.
Territory continued to favour England but a number of promising moves failed to find hands and chances were lost with Clegg curving his run to get in behind but failing to find his man with the inside flick.
A penalty at the scrum handed Clegg the chance to cut the lead to a point and he made no mistake as England trailed 7-6 with 15 minutes until the break.
Bernard pushed a penalty left as France looked to take advantage of England coming in the side at the breakdown. But just before the break indecision over a cross field kick allowed Camara to collect a loose ball and dive over with Bernard added the extras for a 14-6 half-time lead.
A last ditch tackle from Clegg stopped France scoring again just after the break but fortune smiled on the visitors when Bernard dropped into the pocket for a drop goal. His effort was charged down off an England body but still ran kindly under the posts for Camara to profit as he touched down.
England rang the changes in a bid to spark fresh life into their game and it appeared to work as two breaks saw England surge forward with Stegmann prominent. But two lost lineouts in quick succession let France off the hook.
The game continued to swing from end to end as England keenly looked for a way back into the match after the body blow of the try just moments after the restart.
Another stolen lineout gave England good ball but they could not unlock a solid French defence who continued to dish out the big tackles.
From nowhere Stegmann made a sensational break down the right wing and when England cut inside and drove for the line France cynically killed the ball at the breakdown and lost Guyot to the sin bin. From the restart the ball was spun right and Stegmann finished the move he started to cut the lead.
France, though, rallied from the kick-off with crossing going against England and Bernard stroking home the penalty to nudge his side further ahead. Then, with nine minutes left, the game was ended as a contest when replacement Jean Charles Orioli dived in from close range.
Camara looked set for his hat-trick when he cut a superb line but the pass off Guillaume Namy was pulled back for creeping forwards in the offload.
England looked for a consolation late score but could find no way back and when a French counter was lost forward the game came to a tame finish.
9m Guyot t Bernard c 0-7
13m Clegg p 3-7
25m Clegg p 6-7
39m Camara t Bernard c 6-14
44m Camara t Bernard c 6-21
65m Stegmann t 11-21
68m Bernard p 11-24
71m Orioli t Bernard c 11-31
England: 15 Greig Tonks (Hurrell 73), 14 George Lowe, 13 Luke Eves (c), 12 Tom Casson (Burns 51), 11 Seb Stegmann, 10 Rory Clegg, 09 Dan White (Harrison 48); 01 Ben Moon, 02 Jamie George, 03 Bob Baker (Marler 50), 04 Dan Williams, 05 James Gaskell, 06 Jamie Gibson, 07 Jacob Rowan, 08 Chris York (Sargeant 48)
Replacements: 16 Arthur Ellis, 17 Joe Marler, 18 Peter Elder, 19 Tom Sargeant, 20 Sam Harrison, 21 Freddie Burns, 22 Will Hurrell