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Migration Pope Francis I Emmanuel Macron

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Macron meets Pope Francis on first Vatican visit

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Pope Francis meets French President Emmanuel Macron during a private audience at the Vatican, June 26, 2018. Alessandra Tarantino/ Pool via Reuters

French President Emmanuel Macron met for the first time on Tuesday with Pope Francis on a visit that excludes any discussion with the populist Italian government.


However, the issue of migrants, one of the Argentinian pope’s major concerns should be at the heart of the meeting Tuesday morning.

Before this tete-a-tete, Emmanuel Macron had breakfast discreetly with the community of lay Catholics Sant'Egidio, who are closely involved in the reception of migrants and one of the organizers of some of the "humanitarian corridors" conveying Syrian refugees into Europe.

The meeting with an organization close to Italian political circles could be the opportunity to pass messages to the new government, which declared war on the NGOs positioning their boats off the Libyan coast.

The pope regularly calls on EU leaders to maintain founding ideals such as "solidarity".

However, the visit is the subject of considerable criticism from French secularists. Macron has called for stronger ties between the state and the Catholic Church, a move critics said blurred a line that has kept French government free of religious intervention for generations.

It has also place the spotlight on Macron’s own religious beliefs. As a schoolboy, Emmanuel Macron decided he wanted to be baptised as a Catholic, despite his parents' misgivings.

It was "the start of a mystical period that lasted for a few years," the French president told an interviewer during campaigning in 2017.

By his mid-teens, he had distanced himself from the church, however, and he now considers himself to be agnostic.

Asked last year whether he believed in God, he gave a cryptic answer that pointed to his faith in something spiritual and immaterial, but not Catholic in form.

"I believe in a form of transcendence, that's why I thoroughly respect the role of religions in society," he said during a chat with journalists. Faith and the highly sensitive subject of the role of the church in French society are set to be on the menu Tuesday when Macron visits the Vatican for the first time as leader for a meeting with Pope Francis.

The 40-year-old centrist has also decided to accept being made an honorary canon of St John Lateran, the cathedral of Rome, a tradition dating back to the 15th century when the French state and church were indistinguishable.

Several of Macron's predecessors have declined the title, including Socialists Francois Mitterrand and Francois Hollande, in a bid to avoid associating themselves with religious imagery.

'Little priest'

France is strictly secular under a landmark 1905 law that separated the state from the church.

It remains one of the country's most debated rules and was invoked controversially in 2004 to ban religious symbols, including the Islamic headscarf, from schools.

Macron's decision to accept the honorary canon title has drawn particular scrutiny at home following comments in April in which he said he wanted to "repair" the "bond" between church and state.

One of his leftist opponents, Jean-Luc Melenchon, led criticism of the remarks, saying: "One expects a president, one gets a little priest."

Macron's enthusiasm for the church appears to stem in part from his belief that religious leaders have a role to play in helping French society overcome a fractious period riven by economic, ethnic and social tensions.

It might also be an electoral calculation: Catholicism is still France's biggest religion and many believers worry that France is moving too far from its traditional Christian roots.

"At a time of great social fragility... I consider it my responsibility to stop the erosion of confidence among Catholics with regard to politics and politicians," Macron told church leaders in April.

His meeting with Pope Francis will also be an opportunity to soothe diplomatic tensions with the Vatican which emerged under the 2012-2017 presidency of Hollande, a self-described atheist.