For so long it seemed England, reduced to 10 men when Hamza Choudhury was sent off midway through the second half, would prosper in the Stadio Dino Manuzzi courtesy of a fine opener by Manchester City teenager Phil Foden.
Not only that but France had missed two penalties, once when Dean Henderson saved from by Moussa Dembélé at 0-0 and then when Houssem Aouar hit a post as France chased an equaliser in the second half.
The French appeared to have left their revival too late but then Jonathan Ikoné equalised with 60 seconds of normal time remaining before an Aaron Wan-Bissaka own goal gifted France an improbable victory.
Until those dramatic final moments Foden’s goal had been the game’s pièce de résistance, a breathtaking run through six flailing France defenders followed by an ice-cool finish; his dancing feet will have delighted watching England manager Gareth Southgate, up in the stands on a balmy evening in Emilia Romagna.
The first half provided exhilarating fare, with England striking a post and Dembele missing his penalty after Jake Clarke-Salter handled.
England should have been out of sight by the time Manchester United’s Henderson foiled Dembélé. Dominic Solanke twice fluffed his lines from close range and Demarai Gray blasted into the side netting.
Southgate will have been particularly impressed with the performances of his prized assets Foden and James Maddison.
Aidy Boothroyd, the England Under-21s manager, had described his team as a mixture of “soldiers and artists” but they had nothing to show for the mix until Foden struck nine minutes into the second half.
Ryan Sessegnon had a goal disallowed for offside on the hour but England’s mood soured when Choudhury recklessly floored Bamba in the penalty box. Referee Srdjan Jovanovic showed the midfielder a yellow card before upgrading it to red after a VAR review.
Bamba was still being treated off the pitch as Aouar cracked his penalty against a post.
France refused to be dispirited and ultimately capitalised, in dramatic style, on their one-man advantage.