Replacements used: Finlay Bealham (Exile) for Carey (half-time), Iain Henderson (Queen's University/Ulster) for O'Mahony (54 mins), JJ Hanrahan (UL Bohemians/Munster) for O'Halloran (62), Shane Buckley (Garryowen/Munster) for Bealham (62-65), Peter du Toit (UCD/Leinster) for McIlroy, Shane Buckley (Garryowen/Munster) for Heffernan (both 69), James McKinney (Queen's University/Ulster) for Boyle (79). Not used: David Doyle (UCD/Leinster).
Replacements used: Clement Bourgeois (Pau) for Colliat, Victor Delmas (Colomiers) for Desmaison (both 52 mins), Mathias Marie (Biarritz Olympique) for Vahaamahina, Jean Buttin (Clermont Auvergne) for O'Connor (both 56), Pierre Julien (Agen) for Gimeno, Lauren Magnaval (Toulon) for Lesgourgues (both 67), Thibaut Visensang (Bayonne) for Taofifenua (69).
Injuries and Magners League call-ups depleted Ireland's selection and head coach Mike Ruddock made six changes to the team that saw off Italy in Parma last Friday.
Out-half Paddy Jackson stood out as one of Ireland's best players in Athlone, kicking well out-of-hand and from restarts and also passing with aplomb.
He knocked over two penalties on the night and converted Niall Annett's 57th-minute try as the hosts mounted a spirited comeback.
But Plisson's late try put the seal on a deserved victory for a powerful French side that dominated the forward exchanges at times.
Ireland made a textbook start. Jackson's kick-off was tapped back brilliantly by Aaron Conneely, and Alex Kelly immediately took play into the French 22.
Ruddock's youngsters went through the phases before offside was called against William Demotte and Jackson's left-sided penalty nudged Ireland into an early lead.
The French forwards worked a few pick and goes as they broke into the hosts' 22, and it took a timely turnover from captain Annett to relieve the pressure near the Irish posts.
France's powerful scrum gave them a great platform to attack from, and they showed their attacking quality through an 11th minute try.
There were great hands from lock Sebastien Vahaamahin in the build-up, before Lesgourgues gave winger Bérard a chance to sprint up the right touchline and his neat delivery out of the tackle sent the supporting scrum half over for the try.
Replays showed that Lesgourgues' initial pass to Bérard was forward, but the match officials missed it and Doussain added the conversion with the aid of the right hand post.
Ireland showed huge commitment in the tackle but they struggled for territory in the opening quarter, with big number 8 Gillian Galan and his colleagues making the hard yards.
Nathaniel McDonald was tackled but driven forward by his support over the halfway line and Ireland gained a good position after Tiernan O'Halloran shunted Palis into touch.
Although Annett and Daniel Qualter could not connect at the resulting lineout, Jackson's well-weighted grubber kick saw Ireland keep the French pinned back. The Irish out-half was also on hand to bring down Marvin O'Connor on a French breakaway.
However, a turnover on the Irish 22 allowed France to build through the phases and Jean-Pascal Barraque put Palis over for the second try. Bérard's decoy run caught out two Irish defenders just before Barraque released the full-back.
Doussain kicked the conversion and added another after Bérard collected France's third try just before the break. Lesgourgues looked offside as Bérard tried to burrow over from five metres out, but again the score was allowed to stand.
A good surge from O'Halloran helped Ireland hit back in injury-time. Presented with a penalty chance from 40 metres out, Jackson's terrific kick closed the gap to 15 points.
France responded after a minute-and-a-half of second half play. Palis drew in two defenders before passing for the lively O'Connor to dot down in the left corner.
Doussain kept up his 100% record with a fine conversion from wide out on the left. Ireland recovered well, getting their offloading game going with Jackson and Andrew Boyle making an incision in midfield.
That good work was undone when, with 51 minutes on the clock, the French worked a maul on the left and hooker Colliat brushed off Blane McIlroy's challenge and sprinted in at the corner for an unconverted try.
Ireland maintained a high work-rate and full-back Michael Sherlock was sent hurtling into the visitors' 22 by O'Halloran's looping pass.
France lost lock Demotte to the sin-bin as he illegally brought down an Irish maul, five metres from his own line.
The Irish kept their patience and after a Jordi Murphy take at the next lineout, they executed a well-organised maul that led to Annett diving through from the pushover.
Jackson tagged on the extras for a 33-13 scoreline and Irish tails were up as they won a scrum against the head and Murphy, McIlroy and Boyle all carried forward.
But the game lulled in a stop-start final quarter. Injuries to props Conor Carey and Finlay Bealham made for uncontested scrums. France enjoyed the better of the territory, with centre Jules Plisson knocking on close to the Irish posts.
The visitors' sixth try eventually arrived in the 77th minute. Numbers out wide on the right resulted in Plisson making it over in the corner despite a despairing tackle from Sherlock.
Speaking afterwards, Mike Ruddock said: "We knew it was going to be tough, especially in the scrum. The French had a heavy unit there, a lot of big powerful boys.
"Obviously being a couple of guys down after last week, we really missed one or two of the guys that were part of the preparation over the longer term.
"But the guys dug in and showed a lot of spirit in the second half. We tried to play some football, but the quality of possession we were getting at times wasn't exactly what we wanted."
He added: "Our lineout was fantastic - we stole some of theirs - and our kick-off structures worked great. We wanted to kick midfield and wider out to stop the big French pack rumbling on. We didn't just want to kick to their pack and let them drive on.
"We fell off a couple of tackles in the first half which was disappointing, because we highlighted the collisions as being very important.
"We dug in and kept trying hard, and obviously it would be great to get some of those guys from the Magners (League) back for the next game."
The Irish management can take some encouragement from the fact that six more players - Michael Sherlock, Nathaniel McDonald, David Heffernan, David O'Mahony, JJ Hanrahan and Shane Buckley - have gained experience at this level.
TIME LINE: 3 minutes - Ireland penalty: Paddy Jackson - 3-0; 11 mins - France try: Yann Lesgourgues - 3-5; conversion: Jean-Marc Doussain - 3-7; 34 mins - France try: Geoffrey Palis - 3-12; conversion: Jean-Marc Doussain - 3-14; 39 mins - France try: Pierre Bérard - 3-19; conversion: Jean-Marc Doussain - 3-21; 40+3 mins - Ireland penalty: Paddy Jackson - 6-21; Half-time - Ireland 6 France 21; 42 mins - France try: Marvin O'Connor - 6-26; conversion: Jean-Marc Doussain - 6-28; 51 mins - France try: Romain Colliat - 6-33; conversion: missed by Jean-Marc Doussain - 6-33; 56 mins - France yellow card: William Demotte; 57 mins - Ireland try: Niall Annett - 11-33; conversion: Paddy Jackson - 13-33; 77 mins - France try: Jules Plisson - 13-38; conversion: missed by Jean-Marc Doussain - 13-38; Full-time - Ireland 13 France 38
Referee: Giuseppe Vivarini (Italy)