A "knee jerk" law banning the burkini could fuel further Islamist attacks on France, Francois Hollande warned yesterday (Thursday) in a speech seen as kicking off his re-election campaign.
In an hour-long address on "democracy and terrorism", the Socialist president insisted he would not let France "deteriorate in the coming months and years" and lashed out at rivals.
Commentators saw it as a clear indication that he intends to run for a second five-year term next spring despite remaining the most unpopular president in modern history.
Promising to protect the nation and maintain unity in the wake of attacks that have left 238 people dead since January 2015, Mr Hollande said France could not compromise on democracy and the "rule of law" in the fight against terror, or it would "lose its soul".
The 62-year-old singled out Nicolas Sarkozy, who hopes to represent the centre-Right again next year and has called for a law banning the burkini.
Dozens of southern French resorts banned the full body swimsuit from beaches this summer, but the country's constitutional court ruled that the garment did not break laws on secularism or pose a security risk.
Mr Hollande said: "I don't want to give Islamists reasons to put pressure through provocation to test the limits of the French Republic. Nor will I give them a pretext to take offence at the stigmatisation of Muslims."
He told allies and journalists at the Wagram hall, named after a famous Napoleonic victory: "While I'm president, I will pass no knee jerk law that would be as inapplicable as it would be unconstitutional. It is my deep conviction that our laws are sufficient, we simply need to apply them in all their rigour and effectiveness."
Mr Hollande warned that secularism was not a "state religion" to be used against other beliefs and that it was as compatible with Islam as with Christianity and Judaism.
"Can Islam accept the separation of faith and law that is the very basis of secularism? My response is yes clearly yes. The immense majority of our Muslim compatriots today give us daily proof by practicing their faith without any threat to public order," he said.
"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."
Fears of fresh attacks were raised this week when police found a car containing gas tanks and petrol canisters next to Notre Dame cathedral. Two couples, one with Islamist leanings, have been detained for questioning.
Abdeslam Salah, the only surviving member of the terrorists who attacked Paris last November, killing 130, was brought before a judge yesterday, but refused to talk.
Mr Sarkozy called this month for a "merciless" response to the terrorist attacks and said "legal niceties" should not hamper the fight against terror.
Without mentioning his rival by name, Mr Hollande said: "Constitutional principles are not legal niceties.
"Is the freedom to come and go a legal nicety? Is freedom of expression a legal nicety?"
An opinion poll published by Elabe on Wednesday suggested almost nine out of 10 voters were against the president seeking a second five-year term. They voiced deep dissatisfaction on security and the economy.