France's secular laws can accommodate Islam - Hollande
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President Francois Hollande insisted Thursday that France's strict laws separating church and state do not prevent the country's large Muslim minority from practising their religion.
In a speech on terrorism and democracy coming in the midst of a debate on the banning of the Islamic burkini swimsuit, Hollande said: "Nothing in the idea of secularism opposes the practice of Islam in France, provided it respects the law."
Mayors in around 30 French towns last month cited the country's century-old secular laws in banning head-to-toe swimwear on their beaches, unleashing a furore.
Hollande said secularism was not a "state religion" to be used against other religions.
The state guaranteed "the right to believe or not to believe" as long the demonstration of that belief did "not disrupt public order," he said.
Asking whether Islam could co-exist with a secular French state, like Christianity and Judaism, he insisted: "My answer is yes, certainly."
"The question the Republic must answer is: Is it really ready to make place for 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 speech Hollande cast himself as the defender of democracy in the face of a string of terror attacks that have left over 230 people dead since January 2015.
The government has responded 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.
Hollande warned that France could not sacrifice its core values of liberty, equality and fraternity.
"Did the Patriot Act and Guantanamo protect Americans from the (terrorist) threat? No," he said, alluding to calls by Sarkozy for terror suspects to be interned in camps.
"Democracy is our weapon" Hollande insisted.
Polls predict the Socialist leader would suffer a humiliating defeat if he threw his hat in the ring again after five years marked by
stubbornly high unemployment and only timid attempts at reform.
Three of his former ministers have already announced their own presidential bids.
They could soon be joined by ambitious former economy minister Emmanuel Macron, who resigned from government last week and has hinted he too could run for the Elysee Palace.
Hollande cast himself as the only man who could hold the fractured country together.
"When there is danger we must come together," he said.
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