France is versatile, balanced, and not too difficult. This makes them a great civ to start and learn the game with, but also a very strong one in the right hands. After all, they have a gazillion choices when it comes to their build, and choosing the correct one or adapting into the correct one is a challenge. If you do this right though, France cannot be broken. The only way to beat this civ, and this is something many civs are able to do, is to outscale them.
France has the best early game economy in the game. They start with 6.25 vills (5 cdb, each worth 1.25v) and they can always early market, effectively making them start with ~6.9 vills. On top of that they send a 3.75v shipment which is unmatched except by Germany's 4v, and cdb build slightly faster than 1.25x the normal vill build time, meaning France ages up (assuming they went for early market and not early TP, which is even better) with 14 * 1.25 * 1.1 = 19.25 vills. Compare this to Japan's transition eco of about 14 vills and realise that it makes a lot of sense that Japan would be on the defensive in the early game of this match up. On top of all that, France can easily squeeze in their 5v shipment in early colonial, bringing them to a 30+ vill eco at 5.30 (including steel traps).
France's unmatched early game eco means they will have a lot of resources in early to mid colonial. As a result, they can choose a number of different builds and be successful at each one. Their no eco rush builds (think xbow+pike or musk+huss with 8 xbow early) are especially scary due to “no eco” not really being in France's vocabulary. After all, with steel traps in early colonial they will have a 25v eco in no time and will still be in your face with a decent mass, much like Iro or Azzy. This also makes them very scary on standard (poorly balanced) maps, where they can almost always force map control in the first 8 minutes, fighting with their vills if necessary. Taking map control back from them without any resources in your base can be a challenge.
But, of course, the game doesn't stop there. After their quick boom and solid mass in colonial, France has mediocre scaling. They have strong semi-FFs due to their abundance of resources and they have cuirs, which makes their early to mid fortress quite scary still, but cuirs don't win games by themselves unless it's a 3v3 random, and a lot of civs will have something even better in fortress, or will have boomed and surprassed France in economy making France the forced aggressor. Now, France has some really strong timings both in colonial and early to mid fortress, and they can even play for the long game where they try to keep map control and starve their opponent out, so there are still plenty of options. Indeed, if France had this strong an early game while scaling as well as Japan or India, they would probably be the top civ.
Because of France's extreme versatility, it's very hard to write a build for them that one could follow every game. France can start a number of ways, and they can transition in an even bigger number of ways. For example, they can start with a generic musk huss build and then they still have 3 choices: Do a timing with it, age up, or play for long term colonial. This doesn't only make them a hard civ to master, it also makes them extremely tough to play against. After all you can scout their buildings and first shipment but you still can't really know when to expect them to become aggressive, or even what units they'll be making.
The most important thing to remember when playing as France is that you will generally have the initiative. France is a civ that doesn't really require you to adapt much, meaning you are often the one deciding the way your opponent should play. Attacking France early is kind of a no-go after all (for most civs, that is) and France has a relatively easy time ageing up if they want to. Mind games become strong here, because your opponent will be scouting you and trying to adapt and if you build 2 raxes in early colonial and then age up, he's caught with his pants down with his yumi behind a wall against 2 falcs, for example. Of course, France can't just do whatever they want. It's not like they can simply choose to do a long term colonial build against a civ like India, they are forced into playing for timings in some match ups. Knowing when you need to push and when you can sit back and relax, is one of the most challenging things about this civ.
The French build
Check starting crates:
With an extra wood crate (200w start), build a TP and chop 100 for the house.
With the gold crate, mine 75 gold and chop 50w, build a market and trade gold for wood. Then get a house + hunting dogs.
With an extra food crate, get the market up first and get hunting dogs (mine 50c). Chop 150 wood then get a house up.
During transition, chop for a(nother) TP (exception: no eco FF).
If you don’t have a market yet, chop for that too. Get hunting dogs, placer mines and chop another 125 wood for steel traps. Mine gold for that, too. You can afford all this and still get a decent number of units out in early colonial, because of France’s ridiculous transition economy.
ageing up with 400w (500f in case of FF), you can spend this a number of ways. Either 2 raxes for a bow+pike rush or even 2 rax musk, a rax and a stable for a musk+huss start, or a single rax or single stable (+2 houses) for a cav or musk semi-FF. Note that it’s also viable to start with a single stable and sending 4v 700w, then mixing 2 raxes in with the 700w. Chop 100w extra for another house with this. This build goes heavy on eco and heavy on cav but chooses to stay in colonial (for now) rather than age up. This can be advisable in match ups where your opponent may do a strong timing to punish your semi-FF which you aren’t comfortable against, but you still have the time to invest in economy early on. Think Otto with their jan+abus start.
The FF (5%)
Besides the standard colonial starts that can turn into semi-FFs, there is a fast FF that you can do as well. Note that this is not viable very often, but a decent meta build to mix in every once in a while. Getting a market during transition is optional, it depends which version you’re doing: there’s an eco version and a no eco version. But the transition TP comes first still, and you shouldn't even build that unless you can afford to delay your fortress time.
Do not do this against civs that are likely to semi-FF unless they’re slow at it and can’t really punish your lack of units in colonial. What makes this build strong is that it keeps the amount of colonial shipments to a minimum (only 1) which means you will get more value out of your shipments.
The no eco version is also a strong all in FF which can catch some builds off guard, and it's decent against 8 min timings which will arrive too late to punish you.
Note that with this FF, taking the early TP from 100w start is always worth it. Even if you end up ageing with 15 vills, you don't really mind because you aren't relying on a colonial shipment (700g) to get you the resources to age up with.
The no eco version is as follows:
Age up with 500f and mine gold with enough (about 10) vills so that you will have 1200-1000 around the same time.
Use the wood for a military building (yes, only one, usually a stable) and houses, optional: market.
Age up with the fast politician, you will be in fortress around 6.40 with a shipment ready and a military building up, with enough houses to support a decent cuir or goon batch. Send a unit shipment and push immediately.
And the eco variation:
Everything is the same except get the market up during transition and:
(2) 4v instead of 700w.
Chop just enough for a rax and a house.
For a stable, amalgamation and more houses. Obviously, only do this if you have the time to neglect military production for a while.
The rush/timing 10%
As mentioned, the French rush is quite scary due to its unmatched mass around 7 to 8 minutes. They are not as fast as Iro, but their eco is better which makes their rush almost as scary as the Iro one. And while they have strong timings, France also has great constant early pressure builds. Often, the 2 combine into a strong rush as well as a strong timing later on. Note that it’s always possible to transition out of this if you run into a wall (be it a literal one or not) that is impossible to push into. In that case, send 4v asap and turn it into a semi-FF or stay colonial if your plan is to starve them out in mid colonial. Assuming you’re going through with the rush and the timing:
(4) 8 xbow
Always chop for the market during transition and always get steel traps. 2+ vills for 250 resources is simply not something you can pass on.
You’re either going 2 rax bow+pike, 2 rax musk or musk+huss in early colonial. Each of these can be built forward and you can pressure from the very first batch, in most match ups. In case of xbow+pike it’s fairly straightforward what you should do with the next shipments. In case of musk+huss and 2 rax musk, it depends on whether you have housing problems. The 600w usually goes into houses and/or mixing in some xbows, completing the 3 unit composition. The 8 xbow shipment is optional for if you want to do a 7-8 min timing push to punish fast booms or (semi-)FFs. 4v or even 700g for a quick age up are viable as well, if the timing is not likely to do much.
The long term plan 85%
Both 700w first or 4v first can end up here. A common follow up to the first 700w is 4v, and 4v first in colonial is as common. This early vill shipment sets you up for a strong mid game and makes sure your economy is and will stay ahead for another couple of minutes at least. Obviously, sending 4v early changes the timing you’re playing for. You’re no longer going for the 8 minute mass or the constant early pressure, you’re going for a timing around 10-12 minutes, or, if you outscale your opponent, you’re simply sitting back and waiting for them to punish your eco play.
As mentioned, this can easily turn into a semi-FF but can just as easily turn into a solid colonial mass. Note that if you didn’t have a second TP yet, it’s viable and often a good idea to mix that in with 700w or 600w.
(4) 600w or (4) 700g (age up optional)
(4) 600w or (4) 700g (age up optional)
(3) 700g (age up)
(4) Fortress age shipment
After 700w you will almost always have 2 raxes and a stable. If you’re definitely going to age up, it’s also viable to build just 1 rax, you won’t need the second one in fortress (however I would then prefer simply 4v 700g 700w).
600w is for mixing in xbows, houses or amalgamation, whichever of the 3 you need. If you’re losing a lot of units you won’t need houses, if you’re not going for the long term you won’t need amalgamation and if you’re going to age up you probably won’t want xbows.
If you ever find yourself in fortress (always with the fast age up) which you often will as France, try and squeeze in that 1000w. Note that this isn’t only a very valuable shipment in itself, it has extra value since you have most of the food/gold market upgrades and none (possibly the first) of the wood upgrades. Also squeeze in the 1000g if you can.
Mixing in a second TC with the 1000w is only worth it if you’re losing units and don’t need the houses, giving you a lot of spare wood. Note that even though a second TC can end up doing wonders, in most games it’s not actually worth spending 600w on in early fortress. Do this only if you need a building to secure your villagers (spending 250w on a tower is viable too in this case) and/or you don’t need to be pushing your opponent because you outscale them.