France's principle of secularism needs to be "reappropriated" following fatal terrorist attacks in Paris, the country's Minister of Education has said.
Najat Vallaud-Belkacem defended France's secularist ethos as a positive influence but said it had been twisted by right-wing politicians and used to attack Islam. Far from rescinding on the country's secular philosophy, she said it was essential to the struggle against radicalisation in France.
"We have to reappropriate the concept of laïcité [secularism] so we can explain to our young pupils that whatever their faith, they belong to this idea and they're not excluded," she said in an interview with the Guardian.
"Secularism is not something against them; it protects them," she insisted.
Last January 17 people in Paris were killed when jihadi gunmen attacked the officies of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket. More recently, 130 were killed in a series of attacks around the French capital.
After the attacks France, which is a secular republic, faced criticism for failing to tolerate religious expression leading to the isolation and radicalisation of young Muslims. The government has banned religious symbols in schools such as crosses and turbans, and Muslim girls are forbidden from wearing headscarves. However Vallaud-Belkacem said secularism was the solution, not the problem.
"Laïcité is about saying we're in a country where individuals can have whatever beliefs, or lack of beliefs, they choose and the public powers must be neutral towards them," she said.
"That's why in schools, we ask pupils not to wear distinctive religious symbols, because schools should be indifferent to beliefs and everyone must be treated equally. But there had been a growing sense of incomprehension among pupils over what this meant, with some pupils feeling it was an aggressive attack on who they were."
She added: "If a big number of young pupils felt secularism was an attack on them, it was because the term had been misused and deformed in the public debate for years by the extreme-right and the right as an attack on Islam. The term had often been misused to point out how Muslims were different to others, and that is clearly problematic."
She said: "So we really wanted to work on that concept of secularism and specially train teachers on it."
Vallaud-Belkacem was interviewed while travelling to the UK where she will meet education secretary Nicky Morgan to learn how British schools tackle social inequality.
In addition to internal questions over combating extremism, France's schools struggle with significant inequalities. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development labels France one of the least egalitarian education systems in the world.
Only five per cent of children from working-class backgrounds achieve doctorate level and only four per cent reach the elite graduate schools.
Vallaud-Belkacem's visit comes after Nicky Morgan announced a new "educate against hate" website to combat extremism in British schools. She disagreed with France's banning of the head scarf but said it was "very much up to schools" in Britain if they wanted to ban Muslim girls from wearing full face veils.