Members of France's National Assembly voted overwhelmingly Monday evening to extend the country's military intervention in Mali, although forces are expected to be reduced dramatically in the coming months.
There was little surprise in the outcome of the vote, but National Assembly lawmakers nonetheless debated for nearly three hours the merits of continuing France's military campaign in Mali.
French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault repeated government promises that a drawdown will leave only 2,000 French forces in Mali by July and 1,000 by the year's end. Others will be positioned in neighboring countries in case of need.
His remarks come just days before the United Nations Security Council is expected to authorize the creation of a U.N. peacekeeping force in Mali as of early July. Ayrault says France will be actively participating in the new force, both by being part of its command structure and by offering intelligence gathering and other assistance.
Ayrault also said it is critical that Mali holds a presidential election in July, as planned.
With help from Chadian forces, France began its military offensive in Mali in January, in a bid to drive out Islamist fighters in the north. Earlier this month, French troops launched a major offensive to rout out remaining pockets of militants in more remote areas.
Despite approving the force extension, some lawmakers raised doubts about an easy French exit from the West African country.
Pierre Lellouche, of the opposition UMP party, said the big question now is to whom will France hand over the keys? He noted Mali still faces a number of challenges, including lack of national reconciliation and a weak political system.