The decision was in line with the Swedish Academy's recent picks of European authors. Last year's prize went to Doris Lessing of Britain.
The academy called Le Clezio an "author of new departures, poetic adventure and sensual ecstasy, explorer of a humanity beyond and below the reigning civilization."
Le Clezio made his breakthrough as a novelist with "Desert," in 1980, a work the academy said "contains magnificent images of a lost culture in the North African desert contrasted with a depiction of Europe seen through the eyes of unwanted immigrants."
That novel, which also won Le Clezio a prize from the French Academy, is considered a masterpiece. It describes the ordeal of Lalla, a woman from the Tuareg nomadic tribe of the Sahara Desert, as she adapts to civilization imposed by colonial France at the beginning of the 20th century.
The Swedish Academy said Le Clezio from early on "stood out as an ecologically engaged author, an orientation that is accentuated with the novels 'Terra Amata,' 'The Book of Flights,' 'War' and 'The Giants."'
Le Clezio has spent much of his time living in New Mexico in recent years. He has long shied away from public life, spending much of his time traveling, often in the world's various deserts.
He has published several dozen books, including novels and essays. The most famous are tales of nomads, mediations on the desert and childhood memories. He has also explored the mythologies of native Americans, who have long fascinated him.
Academy Permanent Secretary Horace Engdahl called Le Clezio a writer of great diversity.
"He has gone through many different phases of his development as a writer and has come to include other civilizations, other modes of living than the Western, in his writing," Engdahl said.
Asked how he thought the prize would be received in the United States, given Engdahl's recent controversial comments about American literature, he said he had no idea.
"I'm not aware that there are today any anti-French sentiments in the U.S. And apart from that, Le Clezio, is a cosmopolitan. He lives part of the year in New Mexico," Engdahl said.
"He's not a particularly French writer if you look at him from a strictly cultural point of view. So I don't think this choice will give rise to any anti-French comments," he said. "I would be very sad if that was the case."
Since Japanese writer Kenzaburo Oe won the award in 1994, the selections have had a distinctly European flavor. Since then 12 Europeans, including Le Clezio, have won the prize. The last U.S. writer to win the prize was Toni Morrison in 1993.
Appearing on France Inter radio Thursday to promote a new book shortly before the prize was announced, Le Clezio was asked if he thought he might win a possible Nobel.
"Sure, why not," he replied. "When you're a writer you always believe in literary prizes."
Le Clezio said a Nobel "was something that makes you rebound, that gives you the desire to keep writing ... We write to be read, we write to have responses, and that is a response."
In an interview with news magazine Label France in 2001, Le Clezio said literature was a "means of reminding people of this tragedy and bringing it back to center stage."
Le Clezio was quoted as saying that "when I write I am primarily trying to translate my relationship to the everyday, to events.
Le Clezio was born in Nice in 1940 and at eight the family moved to Nigeria, where his father had been a doctor during World War II. They returned to France in 1950.
His most recent works include 2007's "Ballaciner," a work the academy called a "deeply personal essay about the history of the art of film and the importance of film" in his life.
His books have also included several tales for children, including 1980's "Lullaby" and "Balaabilou" in 1985.
In addition to the 10 million kronor ($1.4 million) check, Le Clezio will also receive a gold medal and be invited to give a lecture at the academy's headquarters in Stockholm's Old Town.
The Nobel Prize in literature is handed out in Stockholm on Dec. 10 - the anniversary of Nobel's death in 1896 - along with the awards in medicine, chemistry, physics and economics. The Nobel Peace Prize is presented in Oslo, Norway.
Associated Press writers Malin Rising and Louise Nordstrom in Stockholm and Alfred de Montesquiou and Angela Doland in Paris contributed to this report.
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