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French prime minister defends state secularism, denies interfering in Quebec politics

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French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal used his visit to Quebec this week to express strong support for the province's model of state secularism even as he claimed to abstain from weighing in on debates over the controversial policy.

And despite his vocal backing of Quebec's secular values, Attal said he did not discuss the matter in meetings with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Ottawa this week, insisting his endorsement did not constitute meddling in Canadian politics.

"I believe that my responsibility when I'm abroad and when I speak to politicians, democratically elected, that have chosen this model, my responsibility is to tell them that they are not alone with this model," Attal said alongside Premier Francois Legault in Quebec City. "Is this interfering in political debates in Canada? I don't think so."

Quebec's secularism policy includes a 2019 law that bans many public sector employees including teachers and judges from wearing religious symbols at work -- legislation that critics say discriminates against religious minorities.

Secularism is also a foundational principle for France, where it is illegal to wear face-covering veils in the street. And in his previous post as French education minister, Attal banned long robes in classrooms citing their popularity among Muslim students.

"For us, secularism is above all a freedom," Attal said. "Secularism is what allows everyone to make their choices in good conscience, to be free to believe or not believe, and be free to decide (to) or decide not to practise a religion, to show their attachment and belonging to a religion. Secularism is what allows equality between citizens."

The Prime Minister of France Gabriel Attal, right, chats with members of the legislature at the Salon Bleu of the National Assembly, at the legislature in Quebec City, Thursday, April 11, 2024. Quebec Premier Francois Legault, left, laughs. (Jacques Boissinot, The Canadian Press)

Quebec's secularism law, known as Bill 21, has withstood multiple lawsuits, but its opponents hope to push their case to the Supreme Court of Canada. Earlier this week the English Montreal School Board said it would seek leave to appeal to the country's highest court a decision upholding the law. Meanwhile, the federal government has indicated it would participate in a challenge to the law at the Supreme Court.

Attal said Friday that he sees secularism as a way for governments to guarantee equal treatment of citizens regardless of personal beliefs, and that France shares Quebec's commitment to religious non-affiliation.

His validation of secularism differed from his noncommittal statement on the issue of Quebec independence.

Attal affirmed Thursday that he supports the long-standing French policy of "non-interference" and "non-indifference" toward Quebec sovereignty. On Friday, he expanded on those comments, saying he prefers to interpret the policy as one of "sensitivity and respect."

"We obviously have to respect Quebec in its capacity to conduct internal democratic and political debates," he said. "I don't want to make a declaration here that would give the impression that I'm taking part in a debate taking place here in Quebec political life."

The French prime minister was scheduled to travel to Montreal Friday afternoon to participate in panels on the economy before he ends his three-day trip to Canada.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on April 12, 2024. 

With files from The Associated Press.

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