French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian says France is in a "real war" in northern Mali.
Le Drian told France's Europe 1 radio Wednesday that French and Malian forces are coming up against residual jihadist groups outside the major cities of Timbuktu and Gao.
French and Malian troops recaptured both towns last month from Islamic militants, who fled into the surrounding desert.
France says it hopes to start pulling its soldiers out of Mali next month if conditions on the ground are stabilized.
An African regional force expected to have at least 6,000 troops will help the Malian army maintain security after France pulls out. France is calling on the United Nations to oversee the force.
French troops entered Mali a month ago when Islamic extremists who seized control of the north last year began moving south toward the capital, Bamako.
Some information for this report provided by AP and Reuters.