The challenge facing France in Colonial Diplomacy is monumental. I can't imagine that anyone would dare say all powers have roughly equal potential to win in Colonial, and France is the example most point to when making this claim. Still, their position is not entirely hopeless, and a skilled diplomat will recognize that the French have a few advantages to their credit. A winning diplomat will further recognize that France's neighbors have several glaring weaknesses to be exploited.
France's position is intimidating primarily because of the size and (relative) security of her neighbors. France is surrounded on 3 sides by British forces, with massive China looming to the north. Beyond that immediate perimeter lie Holland and Japan, naval powerhouses who often reach French borders by the early midgame. However, all of these powers except Britain have long term interests that coincide with France's, and even Britain can be suckered into temporary cooperation on occasion. France also occupies a key position in the minefield of SCs that is Southeast Asia, allowing the potential for rapid expansion. Holland and Japan are more likely to oppose each other than dedicate excessive forces to attacking France (presuming the French player is not fool enough to build up his own navy and enter the race for the Philippines). In all likelihood then, France will face either Britain alone or a coalition of China and Britain in the early stages of the game. Your primary foreign policy goal as France should be to prevent the formation of such a coalition at all costs.
My favored initial ally as France is China. Beset on all sides just as France is, China often makes a good choice for a friend, since they are probably looking for at least one, if not two, reliable allies to seal off some of the threats that loom on their every border. Unfortunately, Britain can offer them the same incentive, and with a much higher payoff: your rich French homelands. So, to successfully seed discord between Britain and China, you need to make concessions to one or both that entangle their units, and use them as wedges to separate each other's forces from you. You have two initial opportunities to accomplish this: HK and the Bengal area. In both cases, Army Canton is the unit you want to manipulate. If Britain is fool enough to attack Canton on the first turn from HK, by all means support him from Tongking. Opening mission accomplished on turn one, and you can bring Fleet Annam out to boot. This isn't likely though. 9 times out of 10 you will see F Annam and F HK butt heads throughout the first year in the strategically invaluable South China Sea.
Option Two is to draw Army Canton west towards the fertile lands of Burma. The key here is to try to get China to occupy Upper Burma rather than Assam. It is quite worth the risk to allow China uncontested passage through Mandalay if he promises you that Upper Burma is his target. Rangoon and Bangkok should be your own targets for the first year in this situation, and even if you do not successfully take Bangkok, creating a wall of Chinese armies between yourself and the British in India is worth its weight in SCs. An eventual stab of China is advisable, preferably coordinated with Japan or Russia. Cooperation with Holland to attack Malaya and Singapore is icing on the cake.
A bit of luck with either of these strategies sees France comfortably established as the dominant power in SE Asia, Britain and China hopelessly deadlocked and distrustful of one another, and Holland engaging Japan (or better still, allied with you, and engaging Japan). The key point to remember is this: Despite the coastal position of all three of their home SCs, France's true hope for victory is on the mainland. In a variant that requires so many SCs for victory, a sizable portion of the mainland must be conquered, and the effort required to challenge and best Holland and Japan in the naval race is neither prudent nor sufficient in itself for victory. Far better to be one of the many jackals that feeds off of a partitioned Chinese state in the midgame than to embroil yourself in the hopeless naval cause. As is the case with all variants of Diplomacy, victory for France in Colonial is a direct function of how well you can play your neighbors off against one another. So recognize the natural strengths and inclinations that your neighbors have and use them to manipulate their actions.
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