Islam can co-exist with secularism, President Francois Hollande said Thursday, warning in a speech seen as preparing the ground for a re-election bid that the anti-terror fight should not undermine French values.
The deeply unpopular Hollande has yet to announce whether he will run for a second term next year, but is widely expected to be a candidate. In a passionate plea for tolerance, he defended the country’s Muslim minority following a vitriolic debate on the banning of the Islamic burkini swimsuit.
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‘Nothing in the idea of secularism opposes the practice of Islam in France, provided it respects the law,’ Hollande said. Secularism was not a ‘state religion’ to be used against other religions, he said in the speech in Paris, denouncing the ‘stigmatisation of Muslims’.
Mayors in around 30 towns this summer cited France’s century-old secular laws in banning head-to-toe swimwear on their beaches, unleashing a furore. Several of the towns later revoked the bans after France’s highest administrative court ruled they were a ‘serious’ violation of basic freedoms.
Hollande rejected calls by conservatives, including his arch-rival, former president Nicolas Sarkozy, for the state to ban the burkini, saying it would be ‘unconstitutional’.
Asking whether Islam could co-exist with secularism, like Christianity and Judaism, he insisted: ‘My answer is yes, certainly.’
‘The question the Republic must answer is: Is it really ready to embrace a religion that it did not expect to be this big over a century ago? There too, my answer is yes, certainly.’
In a wide-ranging address Hollande cast himself as a guardian of democracy, resisting calls for more repressive laws following a string of jihadist attacks that have left over 230 people dead in France since January 2015.
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The authorities this week launched another anti-terror investigation, following the discovery of six gas cylinders in an abandoned car near Paris’ Notre Dame cathedral.
Seven people are being held over the find, which comes two months after a Tunisian radical slammed a lorry into a crowd of Bastille Day revellers in Nice, killing 86 people. Hollande said attack plots had been foiled ‘in recent days’ but did not elaborate.
The government has responded to the threat by deploying thousands of troops to patrol the streets, enacting a raft of anti-terror laws and repeatedly extending a state of emergency – measures deemed insufficient by the conservative opposition.
Sarkozy, who has announced a bid to try to win back the presidency in next year’s election, has called for suspected radicals to be interned in camps.
The former president responded late Thursday to Hollande’s comments, saying that ‘democracy can’t be weak. We are France, we cannot accept impotence.’