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PARIS (AFP) – France on Tuesday welcomed the election of a new president in Mali as vindication of its decision to send troops into its former colony.
Ibrahim Boubacar Keita's overwhelming victory in Sunday's second round of the presidential poll ensured there was no dispute over the outcome of an election that observers endorsed as largely compliant with international standards.
French President Francois Hollande hailed the vote as "remarkably transparent" and officials said he would be travelling to the west African country to attend Keita's inauguration, expected to take place early next month.
The French president telephoned Keita, a former prime minister and university lecturer, to congratulate him personally on his victory and to assure him that France "will stand by Mali."
"What has happened from the French intervention on January 11, 2013 up to the election of a new Malian president has been a success for peace and democracy," Hollande said in a statement.
"But now everything must be done to ensure the success of the end of the transition, dialogue and Mali's development."
Hollande ordered troops into the former French colony in response to advances by Islamist extremist groups who had taken control of much of the desert north of the vast African state in the wake of a military coup last year.
The move was considered a gamble by many analysts at the time, with France's major allies initially offering only lukewarm backing and little in the way of practical support for the military operation.
But the French force, which reached a peak of 4,500 troops and was backed by deployments from Chad and other African states, encountered little serious resistance.
The Islamists were quickly pushed out of positions they had occupied in central Mali and then forced to disperse from their former bases in the north, ensuring Hollande received a hero's welcome when he visited the country in February.
France was also instrumental in pushing for early presidential elections, against the wishes of those who argued that these should wait until hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the conflict had been enabled to return to their homes.
"We underlined the limits of the process, the problems that were easy to anticipate and which ensured the election did not take place in the best of conditions," said Gilles Yabi, the West Africa director of the International Crisis Group.
"But in the end it was a success for French diplomacy: they took a gamble and it paid off.
"Perhaps if the contest had been tighter and the votes in both the first and second round had been closer, the shortcomings of the organisation would have had more important consequences.
"But the fact that one candidate, Keita, emerged as clear leader very early on removed the risk of the result being contested."
Michel Galy, a French expert on the region who has published a book on the conflict, cautioned that Mali's problems were far from having been resolved.
"There is democracy, but it is democracy with a rather overbearing French presence," Galy said. "With all these military bases in Africa and all these military interventions, are we not going backwards in terms of decolonisation?"
Galy also expressed scepticism about the extent to which the threat posed by the Al-Qaeda-linked Islamist groups had been neutralised.
"They have been dispersed and now we have what I'd call a rapidly expanding nomadic war. Is that really better? Only time will tell."