But the Springboks may have paid a high price for their triumph, with their scrum-half Joost van der Westhuizen likely to miss the rest of their tour after suffering a torn hamstring.
The tourists outscored France by five tries to three as they recorded their second straight win under the new coach Nick Mallett after a victory in Italy last weekend.
A pair of penalties from the centre Christophe Lamaison put France 6- 0 up. But then Dick Muir pounced on a loose ball on the line, converted by the fly-half Henry Honiball to give the Springboks a slender 7-6 lead, before Lamaison landed another penalty for the home side.
Honiball engineered the second Springbok try in the 31st minute, a clever pass starting a movement that ended with Percy Montgomery strolling over.
Honiball missed the conversion but made no mistake three minutes before half-time after the lock Mark Andrews caught the French napping with a quick tap penalty. The South Africans again moved the ball quickly through several pairs of hands before Pieter Rossouw dotted the ball down under the posts.
The French mounted a series of attacks on the Springbok line early in the second period but the tourists defended with tremendous resolve, before Lamaison reduced the deficit with a pair of penalties.
James Dalton powered his way over the line with a brave solo run that broke French hearts in the 53rd minute, again converted by Honiball, who added two further penalties.
The Springboks then scored their fifth try after the wing James Small scampered over in the corner with the French defence in disarray. Honiball was again in accurate form with the conversion to make it 36-15.
Then came the backlash. The South Africans held firm until 13 minutes from time when Olivier Merle scored a pushover try, followed five minutes later by the prop Christian Califano touching down. Another try, from the centre Stephane Glas, set nerves jangling, but the world champions held on.
The second Test will be played in Paris on 22 November, and the Springboks will then play England and Scotland.
France: J-L Sadourny; L Leflammand, S Glas, C Lamaison, P Saint-Andre (capt); T Lacroix, F Galthie; C Califano, M dal Maso, F Tournaire,O Brouzet, F Pelous, Philipe Benetton, L Cabannes, A Benazzi.
South Africa: P Montgomery; J Small, A Snyman, D Muir, P Rossouw; H Honiball, J van der Westhuizen; O du Randt, J Dalton, A Garvey, M Andrews, K Otto, R Erasmus, A Venter, G Teichmann (capt).Reuse content