PARIS (Reuters) - French President Francois Hollande reassured Muslims on Thursday that his country respected them and their religion but said France would not compromise on its commitment to freedom and democracy.
Speaking a week after Islamist militant violence that killed 17 people in Paris, he told a meeting at the Institute of the Arab World in Paris that Muslims were “the first victims of fanaticism, fundamentalism and intolerance”.
Hollande’s speech struck a balance between France’s commitment to protect its 5 million-strong Muslim minority and to defend free speech even if Muslims find it offensive.
“Islam is compatible with democracy and we should refuse any confusion (about this),” Hollande said at the Institute, where “We are all Charlie” was written in French and Arabic on the building’s facade.
Hollande also addressed the Arab world: “France is a friend, but it is a country that has rules, principles and values. One of them is not negotiable - freedom and democracy.”
Hours after Hollande spoke, Belgian police killed two men who opened fire on them during one of about a dozen raids on Thursday against an Islamist group that prosecutors said was about to launch “terrorist attacks on a grand scale”.
As the French government prepares legal changes to boost security in the country and armed police guard media offices, Jewish schools and other sites, French Muslims have reported dozens of attacks on mosques since Islamist gunmen targeted satirical journal Charlie Hebdo last week.
But Muslim Malian immigrant Lassana Bathily was hailed as a hero after he concealed shoppers at a kosher grocery last Friday to save them from an Islamist gunman who killed four hostages before police shot him dead. The Interior Ministry said it would grant him French citizenship.
In the Middle East, authorities in several countries have denounced Charlie Hebdo’s decision to print more cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad in its latest edition on Wednesday.
Freshly printed copies of Charlie Hebdo’s “survivors’ edition” quickly sold out on Thursday morning, as they did on Wednesday when it first hit the newsstands.
The dispute over Charlie Hebdo’s caricatures of Prophet Mohammad escalated in Turkey where a judicial investigation was launched against the daily Cumhuriyet for publishing excerpts of the cartoons from the French weekly.
In France, the military’s cyber defence specialist reported a surge of hacking against some 19,000 French websites in the past four days, with Islamist messages appearing on some and denials of service blocking others.
Cyber defence expert Vice Admiral Arnaud Coustilliere told journalists that “Islamist hackers” were behind the unprecedented wave of computer attacks on French websites.
“This is the response to last Sunday’s march,” he said, referring to a mass protest march led by Hollande and over 40 world leaders in response to the Islamist attacks.
The hackers ranged “from shocked believers to hardened terrorists” and used simple methods, according to Coustilliere.
On Friday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is set to meet with French President Francois Hollande and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.
He will also give a speech at the Paris City Hall to show solidarity with the French people, a senior U.S. State Department official told reporters. He added that American musician James Taylor will also sing at the event.
Writing by Tom Heneghan; Editing by Mark Heinrich/Hugh Lawson