France got their Natwest Six Nations Championship campaign up and running at the third time of asking as Italy were condemned to a third straight defeat.
Les Bleus had lost to Ireland and Scotland in their opening two games and another reverse at the hands of the Azzurri would have been unthinkable.
In front of an expectant crowd at the Stade Velodrome in Marseille, Italy suffered the indignity of a record 15th straight Six Nations defeat and they are now likely to pick up this year’s wooden spoon.
France, who had failed to win their previous eight encounters in all competitions, claimed victory with tries from Paul Gabrillagues, Hugo Bonneval and Mathieu Bastareaud.
They went into this game having dropped a total of eight players for “not respecting their status as international players” during a night on the town after defeat to Scotland a fortnight ago.
In another move that forced a few raised eyebrows, Toulon centre Bastareaud returned to the team following a three-week ban for homophobic abuse but he was the game’s outstanding player here and deserved his late try.
It was the first time in Six Nations history that France had played a Six Nations home match outside of Paris and their record in Marseille is formidable.
Italy coach Conor O'Shea made three changes from the team that lost 59-19 to Ireland last weekend – their 14th straight Six Nations defeat – but France claimed the first try of the match.
It came in the fifth minute when a well-worked line-out routine led to French lock Gabrillagues stretching over the line from the back of the ruck.
It was the perfect start for the French, although their ill discipline was again a cause of concern as Italy were awarded a penalty try in the 11th minute after referee Wayne Barnes deemed the hosts guilty of collapsing a maul.
Italy led 7-5 and, on a bitterly cold night, the game was dominated by forward play - mauls, scrums and line-outs - and France fumbled the chances that came their way.
However, they regained the lead in the 29th minute when Machenaud booted a penalty to make it 8-7 in France’s favour and they led 11-7 at the break.
In the 59th minute, Bastearaud made yet another break down the centre, Remy Grosso avoided the touchline by some dark art and his inside pass sends Bonneval over the whitewash.
And then with seven minutes remaining, it was Bastearaud’s turn to take centre stage, a role he seems born for.
A formidable break from number eight Marco Tauleigne created the field position for Bastareaud to charge through three Italian forwards and carry the ball down over the whitewash, capping an stunning display from the Toulon man.
Italy replied late on with a try from full-back Matteo Minozzi, but it was little consolation.