Even before the P-36A entered production, the French Air Force entered negotiations with Curtiss for delivery of 300 aircraft. The negotiating process ended up being very drawn-out because the cost of the Curtiss fighters was double that of the French Morane-Saulnier M.S.406 and Bloch MB.150, and the delivery schedule was deemed too slow. Since the USAAC was unhappy with the rate of domestic deliveries and believed that export aircraft would slow things down even more, it actively opposed the sale. Eventually, it took direct intervention from U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt to give the French test pilot Michel Detroyat a chance to fly the Y1P-36.
Detroyat's enthusiasm, problems with the MB.150, and the pressure of continuing German rearmament finally forced France to purchase 100 aircraft and 173 engines. The first Hawk 75A-1 arrived in France in December 1938 and began entering service in March 1939. After the first few examples, aircraft were delivered in pieces and assembled in France by the Société Nationale de Constructions Aéronautiques du Centre. Officially designated Curtiss H75-C1 (the "Hawk" name was not used in France), the aircraft were powered by Pratt & Whitney R-1830-SC-G engines with 900 hp (671 kW) and had metric, translated instruments, a seat for French dorsal parachutes, a French-style throttle which operated in reverse from U.S. and British aircraft (e.g. full throttle was to the rear rather than to the front) and armament of four7.5 mm FN-Browning machine guns. The aircraft evolved through several modifications, the most significant being the installation of the Wright R-1820 Cyclone engine. This variant, designated as Curtiss H751-C1, saw little operational use due to its late delivery and reliability problems with the new engine. A total of 416 H75s were delivered to France before the German occupation.
On 8 September 1939, aircraft from Groupe de Chasse II/4 were credited with shooting down two Luftwaffe Messerschmitt Bf 109Es, the first Allied air victory of World War II on the Western front. During 1939–1940, French pilots claimed 230 confirmed and 80 probable victories in H75s against only 29 aircraft lost in aerial combat. Of the 11 French aces of the early part of the war, seven flew H75s. The leading ace of the time was Lieutenant Edmond Marin la Meslée with 15 confirmed and five probable victories in the type. H75-equipped squadrons were evacuated to French North Africa before theArmistice to avoid capture by the Germans. While under the Vichy government, these units clashed with British aircraft over Mers el-Kébir and Dakar. During Operation Torch in North Africa, French H75s fought against U.S. Navy F4F Wildcats, losing 15 aircraft to seven shot down American planes. From late 1942 on, the Allies started re-equipping French units formerly under Vichy and the H75s were replaced by P-40s and P-39s.