France, though surely never at such a low ebb in both their injury-hit set-piece and a higgledy-piggeldy back division, now have a chance of winning the Six Nations Championship and fulfilling the formguide of doing so in each year after a Lions tour in the open era. Scotland did everything but close out the match, and they will finish in the bottom half of the table, consoled to an extent by a surprisingly dominant scrum and the continuing emergence of a midfield to be proud of.
Murrayfield was apoplectic at the marginal penalty decision against Tim Swinson for not giving France a split-second to play as he assisted Richie Gray in a late, late tackle that allowed Jean-Marc Doussain (right), to kick the decisive points left footed. But it was in keeping with the freedom the New Zealander referee Chris Pollock had promoted throughout. Right or wrong, Scotland should have learnt by then, and the 13-5 penalty count shouted loud how they hadn't.
The French will need to beat Ireland in Paris on Saturday, but they will play that match knowing what the other title challengers have done. One of several possible scenarios is that England will be well ahead of them on points difference.
Scotland had two tries in the first half, scored by Stuart Hogg and Tommy Seymour with clever moves among the backs, and it might have been three if Mathieu Bastareaud hadn't wrought a classy turnover by robbing Ryan Grant to end a series of Scottish pick-and-goes a few minutes before the break. Perhaps Grant had already been wearied by having the gargantuan Sebastien Vahaamahina pushing on the blindside of the French scrum.
France had led 6-0 with two penalties by Maxime Machenaud but they were labouring with a misfiring line-out as Brice Mach, the third starting hooker of their Six Nations, after injuries to Dimitri Szarzewski and Benjamin Kayser, found an extraordinary eight ways of missing his intended target before his premature substitution by Guilhem Guirado. On 11 minutes Scotland went in front. Playing with an advantage the ever inventive Hogg chipped an up-and-under into France's ingoal area. Up went Brice Dulin and Yoann Huget for France, and Sean Lamont for Scotland, but none of the three made a catch and Hogg swooped on the loose ball to score, with Greig Laidlaw adding the conversion.
Poor Dulin: he showed in other passages of play his gift for counter-attack, but he had a part in the calamitous pinball collision for a Welsh try when France were humbled 27-6 in Cardiff last time out.
Machenaud kicked a third penalty before a madcap spell midway through the half ended with the Scots ahead again by 14-9. Jim Hamilton, one of three France-based forwards in the home team - another, Johnnie Beattie, had already gone off with an injured ankle - had a line-out stolen from him but immediaelty nicked one back from Mach, and a penalty followed that went to touch. Hamilton's huge leap and palm-down sent Scotland into midfield on the front foot and when Duncan Weir, the drop-goal hero of the win in Italy a fortnight ago, fed Matt Scott, the centre gave an immediate inside pass for Seymour to race past Maxime Mermoz to the corner. Laidlaw's conversion was excellent but there remained a nasty whiff of chicanery about the try being suspiciously easy, thanks to Alex Dunbar's decoy run into Jules Plisson that helped to create the crucial gap.
Clearly, though, the taking of chances was paramount. Another belter went begging for Scotland five minutes into the second half and - worse than that - it gave France their first try. Excited by an overlap, Weir tried to get there too quickly, missing out Scott with a pass aimed at the outside centre Dunbar in the French 22. Huget picked it off and sprinted to the other end with no chaser looking like catching him. Machenaud converted and France were two points to the good again.
As three-quarter time approached, two great scrums by Scotland - one on France's put-in, one on their own - earned a 45-metre penalty shot by Laidlaw that fell just short (Machenaud had missed, similarly, in the 38th minute). But Weir took over the Scottish tee for another long-range kick and steered it over for 17-16 with 18 minutes remaining.
A prolonged bout of big men standing around like striking building-site labourers - otherwise known as the pathetic exercise of resetting scrums on Murrayfield's paddy-field turf - was broken by Bastareaud hurtling dangerously into the Scotland 22. But a home pack that felt like the best-selected and balanced of their Six Nations (not before time) fought brilliantly to force a turnover.
Gael Fickou, the try-scoring scourge of England from round one, came on for Bastareaud. Another Weir penalty, nearer to the posts than his previous effort, but still 44 metres, went wide right, and kept France in single-score range. Ryan Wilson sealing off allowed them to kick downfield and find victory.
"The French team came to try and beat us up and take us on in the set-piece but we dominated them, and that's great credit to our forwards, particularly the front row," said David Denton, the Scotland No.8. "This is one of the most disappointing feelings I've had in a Scotland jersey. We gave it everything we had, we played really well and were very close."
Scotland: S Hogg; T Seymour, A Dunbar, M Scott, S Lamont (M Evans 30); D Weir, G Laidlaw; R Grant, S Lawson (R Ford 52), G Cross, R Gray, J Hamilton (T Swinson 69), J Beattie (R Wilson 17), K Brown (capt), D Denton.
France: B Dulin; Y Huget, M Bastareaud (G Fickou 69), M Mermoz, M Médard; J Plisson (R Talès 47), M Machenaud (JM Doussain 76); T Domingo (V Debaty 69), B Mach (G Guirado 47) , N Mas (R Slimani 61), P Papé (capt), Y Maestri (A Flanquart 61), S Vahaamahina (A Claassen 67), A Lapandry, D Chouly.
Referee: C Pollock (New Zealand).