Francois Hollande has visited the fabled Malian town of Timbuktu - six days after French forces swooped in to liberate it from militants.
Thousands of people welcomed the French president shouting "Vive la France! Vive Francoise Holland" and waving French flags.
Mr Hollande told the crowd France's mission was not yet finished but that African forces would soon have to take over.
"We've already done a lot of work. It's not over yet, it's going to take several weeks, but our goal is to pass the baton.
"We have no intention to stay. Our African friends will be able to do the job we've been doing until now."
The French launched their military operation to oust al Qaeda-linked extremists three weeks ago, and have since taken back the three main northern cities ruled by rebels.
Mr Hollande visited the city's 700-year-old mud mosque of Djingareyber and the Ahmed Baba library for ancient manuscripts, both targeted by destructive Islamist militants.
"There's a real desire to annihilate. There's nothing left," Mr Hollande told the mosque's imam as they visited two ancient saints' tombs that the extremists attacked with pickaxes in July, considering them heretical.
UNESCO head Irina Bokova told the president it would rebuild them.
Women, who had been forbidden from venturing out without veils under Islamist rule, donned vibrantly coloured clothes and their finest jewellery.
Fatou Toure, 25, said: "It's the president of France who freed us from the prison we have lived in for the past 10 months."
"If I could have one wish, it would be that the French army stays in the Sahara, that they create a base here," said Moustapha Ben Essayati, one of those who showed up to greet the French delegation.
"I'm really scared that if they leave, the jihadists will come back. If France had not intervened in Konna, we would no longer be talking about Mali," he said.
Around 800 French forces took part in the effort to free Timbuktu, including hundreds of paratroopers who parachuted on to nearby dunes.
Radical militants seized the town last April, once a popular tourist destination and revered centre of Islamic learning.
They began implementing a strict form of Islamic law known as Shariah, amputating the hand of a suspected thief and whipping women and girls who ventured into public without veils scenes reminiscent of the Taliban in Afghanistan.