President Francois Hollande said Thursday 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 .
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 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," 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.
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."
'Democracy is our weapon'
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.