PARIS - Seeking to preserve its secular nature, the French government has enacted a new policy to deport foreign-born imams and disband faith-based groups if they are found to suffer religious pathology.
"The aim is not to combat opinions by force, but to detect and understand when an opinion turns into a potentially violent and criminal excess," Interior Minister Manuel Valls told a press conference cited by Reuters.
"The objective is to identify when it's suitable to intervene to treat what has become a religious pathology.
Under the new policy, foreign-born imams who are seen becoming violent would be deported from the southern European country.
France has expelled several imams in recent months on claims of preaching hatred in the country.
Imams were also barred from entering France under former president Nicolas Sarkozy, including prominent scholar Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, the president of the International Union for Muslim Scholars.
The restrictions followed the killing of seven people, including three Jewish children, by a self-proclaimed Qaeda gunman in the southern city of Toulouse in March.
France is home to a Muslim minority of six million, Europe's largest.
French Muslims have been complaining of growing restrictions on their religious freedoms.
In 2004, France banned Muslims from wearing hijab, an obligatory code of dress, in public places. Several European countries followed the French example. France has also outlawed the wearing of face-veil in public.
Sarkozy had adopted a series of measures to restrict Muslim freedoms in an effort to win support of far-right voters.
Under Sarkozy, the French government a national debate on the role of Islam in French society.
The French government also outlawed Muslim street prayers, a sight far-right leader Marine Le Pen likened to the Nazi occupation.
Muslims have also complained of restrictions on building mosques to perform their daily prayers.
The new policy also targets faith-based groups as Civitas, a far-right lay Catholic movement that protests aggressively against what it calls insults to Christianity.
"All excesses are being minutely registered in case we have to consider dissolving it and defending this before a judge, Valls said.
He said police were already observing Civitas closely because its protest campaigns skirt "the limits of legality".
Valls said the Socialist-led government would stress the secularist policy called "laicite" that the government said was weakened under the previous conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy.
France's official secularism sidelines faith in the public sphere, but a trend towards a more visible religious identity among some Muslims, Jews and Catholics has made defending it a cause for the traditionally secularist left-wing parties.
Valls said the government had a duty to combat religious extremism because it was "an offence to the republic" based on a negation of reason that puts dogma ahead of the law.
Giving examples of religious extremists, he mentioned creationists in the United States and the Muslim world, radical Islamists, ultra-traditionalist Catholics and ultra-Orthodox Jews who want to live separately from the modern world.
The new policy came two days after President Francois Hollande announced the creation of an agency to track how the separation of church and state is upheld in France.
Hollande said the new observatory - a public agency to monitor policy issues and propose solutions - would also study ways to introduce classes on secular morality in state schools.
Education Minister Vincent Peillon told the conference the classes would stress the French values of equality and fraternity that teachers say pupils increasingly do not respect.
"We have to teach this and it's not being done," he said. "If we don't teach it, they won't learn it."
Valls urged the more militant secularists at the conference not to see religions as sects to be opposed and to understand that established religions could help fight against extremists.
"We have to say that religions are not sects, otherwise sects are religions," he said.
France actively pursues and sometimes bans sects and cults considered a threat to public order but radical Islamist groups have mostly been treated as security problems.Classifying them as sectarian could lead to preemptive legal action against them.