Forget about Les Bleus, it was Les Voleurs we were watching here.

This was larceny on a grand scale by France, an act of thievery so blatant even Inspector Clouseau could figure it out. At the finish, the Scots wondered how on earth they had not won the game. Philippe Saint-Andre's team, you suspect, were wondering the very same thing.

In technical terms it came down to the fact that Tim Swinson did not release a French player after a tackle two minutes from the end, and Jean Marc Doussain, the replacement scrum-half, hammered the resultant penalty between the posts. It was a sickening blow at the end of a game in which Scotland had dominated the possession and territory, won the try count 2-1 and reduced the French line-out to a shambles.

So it would be easy to say that it was only on the scoreboard that France had the edge. Except, that is, that buried away in the match statistics were some telling numbers that showed how Scotland had coughed up 13 penalties to France's five. As Scotland coach Scott Johnson suggested, it was a mystifying measure of a game that Scotland had dominated in every other phase, but it also indicated that a tidier performance will be needed if they are to earn the grace of the referee against Wales next weekend. They might also want to tighten up their passing game. Scotland attacked with menace and precision in the first half, but it was one awful moment of inattention that swung the match France's way and put them in the position to deliver their killer blow at the finish.

It happened in the 45th minute as Scotland, having just ripped possession away from the French at a maul on the right touchline, moved the ball to the left. They had pace and numbers as they streamed across the pitch but lacked clear- headedness.

At the critical moment, Duncan Weir tried to find Alex Dunbar with a long pass but France wing Yoann Huget read it brilliantly, plucked the ball from the air and raced 80 metres to touch down at the other end.

Maxime Machenaud, the starting scrum-half, kicked the conversion to put France 16-14 ahead. Realistically, though, it was a 14-point swing, as a try for Scotland had looked almost certain a few moment earlier. Scotland did wrestle back the lead a few minutes later -commendably, Weir volunteered to take the long penalty that gave them that advantage - but the psychological boost to the French was clear. Had they conceded a try rather than score one the match, and their title aspirations, would have been over.

As it is, France are still in the race. Given their wretched display against Wales last weekend and their ridiculous good fortune here, they could be crowned the worst Six Nations champions ever. They had a degree of obduracy here and can take heart from the fact they did not suffer the mental collapse they went through in Cardiff, but this is not a French side with any sort of swagger about it.

Ridiculously, it is Scotland who will go into the championship's final weekend with a level of optimism that seemed inconceivable just a few weeks ago. They did not do much wrong in this match, and they played with a rhythm that has been a rare quality in their performances in recent years. That, coupled with a solid set-piece display, lent momentum to the overall effort, and the crestfallen expression of the players at the end reflected their knowledge that they should have won with something to spare.

Goodness knows, it looked as if they were going to do just that as they hammered away at the French in the first half. Of course, Scotland have hammered away at many sides down the years with little effect on the scoreboard, but there was purpose and sharpness to this performance and soon they had the scoreboard moving.

Stuart Hogg collected the game's first try in the 12th minute. Scotland had won a line-out on the right, then a ruck in the middle, and there was a suggestion referee Chris Pollock was indicating a Scotland penalty at that point. Hogg took his chance with a punt into the dead-ball area, then dived for his score after the French failed to clear the danger.

The second try fell to Tommy Seymour, who scythed over in the 21st minute after a sublime disguised pass from Matt Scott. But France had kept a foothold in the game with three Machenaud penalties, and they used that platform to edge themselves ahead when it was too late for Scotland to do anything about it. This was a travesty of a victory, and for the Scots, a cruel, cruel way to lose.