Nicolas Anelka celebrates his goal with team-mate Eric Abidal at Croke Park
The Republic of Ireland face an uphill task to make the World Cup finals after Nicolas Anelka's goal helped France win the first leg of their play-off.
Liam Lawrence went close for the Irish while France's Andre-Pierre Gignac had an effort cancelled out for offside.
However, the French dominated the second half as the Irish tired.
Anelka broke the deadlock with his 72nd-minute effort which deflected off Sean St Ledger while French keeper Hugo Lloris denied Glenn Whelan late on.
Damien Duff's passionate and eyes-closed singing of the Irish anthem summed up the atmosphere of the occasion as the match started before over 74,000 spectators at Croke Park.
The Fulham winger was immediately into the action with a crunching but legal tackle on Bacary Sagna, reminiscent of Roy Keane's early marker on Marc Overmars in the Republic's epic win over the Netherlands eight years ago.
However, the early exchanges took on a pattern with the French, with Anelka prominent, content to probe with their slow build-up and the Irish attempting to break quickly when possession did come their way.
The Republic did have a scare in the 12th minute when Gignac had the ball in the net after indecision by Richard Dunne but the effort was correctly ruled out because of offside.
After a scrappy 10 minutes, the Irish had another nervous moment when a Whelan mistake let in Yoann Gourcuff but the shot from 20 yards was straight at Given.
However, the Irish were inches away from taking the lead against the run of play on 27 minutes.
Keane's close-range effort, after a Shay Given free-kick, was smothered by Hugo Lloris and Lawrence's follow-up was somehow deflected wide by Patrice Evra when the Stoke man seemed certain to score.
Richard Dunne outjumps Andre-Pierre Gignac in the play-off first leg
Gignac fired wide a minute later at the other end but the Irish were gaining in confidence and Keith Andrews went close with a curling effort from the edge of the box as the French defence stood off.
The Republic had an escape six minutes before the break as Henry fired a snapshot wide after Andrews had lost possession on the edge of his own penalty area.
But Giovanni Trapattoni's World Cup masterplan remained intact at the break as the sides went in 0-0.
There were chances at both ends in the 10 minutes after half time as the game opened up.
Dunne directed a free header after a Duff corner to the unmarked John O'Shea but the Manchester United defender skied his effort before the French earned a relieving free-kick.
At the other end, Gourcuff strode into a threatening position before scuffing his shot into Given's arms and Lassana Diarra then flashed a shot inches wide with the Irish keeper struggling.
French passing and movement was becoming more evident as the Irish started to noticeably labour for the first time in the contest.
The visitors had a strong penalty shout in the 68th minute as Evra felt that he had been tripped by Given's outstretched hand after a Dunne mistake.
But France were starting to look ominous and it was little surprise that they took the lead on 72 minutes with Anelka's shot deflecting off St Ledger and past Given.
A sloppy backpass by Kevin Kilbane nearly gifted the French a second goal five minutes later but Gignac blasted woefully wide with the goal gaping.
Carelessness in the French defence gave the Irish a late chance to equalise, but Lloris spread himself to deny Whelan as the Republic's hopes of qualification were left hanging by a thread going into Wednesday's second leg in Paris.
Republic of Ireland: Given, O'Shea, St. Ledger, Dunne, Kilbane, Lawrence (McGeady 76), Whelan, Andrews, Duff (Hunt 80), Doyle (Best 70), Keane. Subs Not Used: Joe Murphy, McShane, Kelly, Gibson.
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