France ended a year-long standoff with the Vatican on Wednesday by announcing that Laurent Stefanini, a gay diplomat whose nomination as ambassador to the Holy See was stonewalled by Rome, had been named the new French representative to UNESCO.
The decision, a serious loss of face for the increasingly beleaguered President François Hollande, was made public in a terse sentence at the end of a communiqué listing decisions taken at the weekly cabinet meeting. It made no mention of the drama that has surrounded the case.
It was also a personal defeat for Stefanini, 55, a practising Catholic and deputy head of the French mission to the Vatican who is a respected diplomat and was reported to have the personal support of France’s top Curia cardinal, Jean-Louis Tauran, and Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, Archbishop of Paris.
The nomination was stymied from the start early last year when it was leaked to the French media even before the Vatican had given its required nihil obstat.
Coming from a left-wing government that had recently legalised same-sex marriage against Church opposition and taken a strong line on France’s secularist principle of laïcité, this looked like an effort to publicly test the Vatican’s commitment to Pope Francis’s famous comment “Who am I to judge?”.
This breach of normal diplomatic protocol gave the Vatican an opportunity to simply not accept the nomination and say nothing more. If homosexuality had been its reason, the Vatican could have signalled that to Paris, which in 2008 had to withdraw an earlier candidate whose more public gay lifestyle was unacceptable in Rome.
In fact, Pope Francis met Stefanini and prayed with him in a highly unusual 40-minute private meeting at the Domus Sanctae Marthae on 17 April of last year. The satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaîné said the Pope told the diplomat his homosexuality was not behind the Vatican’s silence about his nomination.
From the start, French officials have said almost nothing in public about the case. After the Pope met Stefanini, government spokesman Stéphane Le Foll confirmed the meeting but gave no other details. “Nothing has changed,” he said. “France has proposed a candidate and we are waiting for the Vatican’s reply.”
In June of last year, Pope Francis reassured French reporters that he planned to visit their country despite the diplomatic standoff. “I’ve promised the bishops. There’s no problem. Little problems are not problems,” he said.
The first crack in France’s resolve appeared in October, when the daily Libération reported that the nomination was “dead”. It quoted an unnamed official “at the highest levels of the state” as saying Hollande “will not propose another ambassador until 2017,” in other words after the next presidential election.
Giving in to the Vatican will not appear as serious now that Hollande suffered a far larger defeat last week. Faced with a revolt within his own party, he abandoned a tough stance he took after last November’s bloody attacks and withdrew plans to strip French nationality from citizens convicted of terrorism.