French aircraft landed at Kidal’s airstrip on Tuesday, carrying French troops but no Malians.
They faced no resistance, Tuareg separatists having earlier declared that they supported the Franco-Malian offensive and thrown the Islamists out of town.
France on Wednesday called on the Malian government to open dialogue with Tuareg groups and other representatives on the north Mali population so as to reach a political settlement.
Mali’s military chiefs were not aware that the French were planning to enter Kidal, sources close to the general staff say and the presidency and communications ministry also said that they had not been in the loop.
"The Malian and French forces have reversed the chain of events," French chief of defence staff Admiral Edouard Guillaud said in Bamako on Wednesday after meeting Malian Prime Minister Diango Cissoko.
"The reestablishment of law and order in northern Mali has started. That's good news and we will carry on.”
Several reports say the main Islamist chiefs, Iyad Ag Ghaly of Ansar Dine and the Algerian Abou Zeid of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqim), have retreated to the mountains in the Kidal region, which borders Algeria and Niger.