Three weeks of French targeted air strikes in northern Mali have left Islamist militants “in disarray”, France’s defence minister has said.
Jean-Yves Le Drian said the jihadists had now scattered, marking a “turning-point” in France’s intervention.
His comments come as the French troops continue to secure Kidal, the last town occupied by militants.
France is preparing to hand over towns it has captured to an African force, which has begun to deploy to Mali.
So far about 2,000 African soldiers, mainly from Chad and Niger, are thought to be on the ground.
It will be the job of the African Union-backed force, the International Support Mission to Mali (Afisma), to root out the al-Qaeda-linked insurgents that have fled into the desert and mountains further north.
Meanwhile, at least two Malian soldiers have been killed when their vehicle hit a landmine south-west of Gao.
Mr Le Drian said that some militants in Mali and been on a “military adventure and have returned home”.
Others had made a “tactical withdrawal to the Adrar des Ifoghas”, the mountainous region east of Kidal covering some 250,000 sq km (96,525 sq miles), he said.
Although this was now a turning-point for France, he said it did not mean that “the military risks and the fighting has ended”.
He also said he backed the idea of sending a UN peacekeeping force to Mali.
The BBC’s Christian Fraser in Paris says the UN Security Council had previously been uncomfortable about deploying a force under a UN mandate, but support is growing.
Envoys believe it would easier to monitor and prevent human rights abuses if the UN could pick and choose which national contingents to use, he says.
A French army spokesman in Bamako, Lieutenant-Colonel Emmanuel Dosseur, told the BBC French Service that France’s special forces were in Kidal, but the majority of troops were still at the airport.
A heavy sandstorm that had hampered operations on Wednesday was starting to clear, and troops may soon be able to continue their deployment, he said.
Haminy Maiga, who heads the regional assembly in Kidal, said he had witnessed no fighting as French forces entered and two helicopters were patrolling overhead.
Correspondents say the bigger problem is how to manage the concerns of the separatist Tuareg fighters in Kidal – the only city in the north to have a majority ethnic Tuareg population.
The secular National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) said its fighters would support the French but would not allow the return of the Malian army, which it accused of “crimes against the civilian population”.
Human rights groups have accused the Malian army of targeting ethnic Tuareg and Arab civilians.
The Tuareg rebels launched the insurgency in October 2011 before falling out with the Islamist militants.
The Islamist fighters extended their control of the vast north of Mali in April 2012, in the wake of a military coup.
An MNLA spokesman told the BBC that its fighters had entered Kidal on Saturday and found no Islamist militants there.
Kidal was until recently under the control of the Ansar Dine Islamist group, which has strong ties to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
The Islamic Movement of Azawad (IMA), which recently split from Ansar Dine, had said that it was in control of Kidal.
The IMA, which has Tuareg fighters amongst its members, has also said it rejects “extremism and terrorism” and wants a peaceful solution.
France – the former colonial power in Mali – launched a military operation this month after the Islamist militants appeared to be threatening the south.