PARIS • President Francois Hollande said yesterday that Islam could co-exist with secularism, warning in a key speech seen as preparing the ground for a re-election bid that the anti-terror fight should not undermine French values.
His speech comes as police were searching yesterday for two "radicalised" women linked to a car containing six gas cylinders found in central Paris, with four people already held as part of the investigation.
The deeply unpopular Mr Hollande has yet to announce if he will run for a second term next year, but is widely expected to be a candidate. In a speech on terrorism and democracy in Paris, he defended the country's Muslim minority following a vitriolic debate on the banning of the Islamic burkini swimsuit.
"Nothing in the idea of secularism opposes the practice of Islam in France, provided it respects the law," Mr Hollande said.
Secularism was not a "state religion" to be used against other religions, he said, denouncing the "stigmatisation of Muslims". Mayors in around 30 French towns this summer cited the country'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.
Mr Hollande rejected calls by conservatives, including his arch-rival, former president Nicolas Sarkozy, for a ban on the burkini, saying it would be "unconstitutional".
As to whether Islam can co-exist with a secular French state, like Christianity and Judaism do, 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 speech Mr 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 last year.
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.
In the country's latest bomb scare, two new suspects, aged around 20, were arrested late on Wednesday in connection with a grey Peugeot 607 found abandoned at the weekend near Notre Dame cathedral, a major tourist draw.
A first couple, held since Tuesday, are known to the security services for links to radical Islamists.
The two women being sought are the daughters of the car's owner - who was also known to the authorities for spreading Islamist ideas. He was arrested on Tuesday but released later that day.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS