Pope Francis and Emmanuel Macron held talks for nearly an hour at the Vatican this morning, against the backdrop of tensions in Europe over migrants and after the French president recently made overtures to the Catholic Church in his country.
Following the unusually lengthy meeting, which took place in the library at the Apostolic Palace, the two men showed warm body language, with Macron placing a hand on the Pope’s shoulder before kissing him on both cheeks.
Francis then held the French leader’s arm and shook his hand vigorously while smiling broadly as he said farewell. The Pope also shook hands with Macron’s wife, Brigitte.
The official document published by the Vatican read: “During the friendly meeting we have confirmed the good bilateral relationship between the Holy Seat and France. We have discussed, with reference to the role of the Church, the contribution of religion to achieve the common good for the whole country”.
The Vatican also listed the topics which have been addressed in the meeting: “We have spoken about global tensions of shared interests, such as the protection of the environment, migration and the multilateral efforts for the prevention and the resolution of conflicts, especially in relation to disarmament”.
There has also been an “exchange of opinions on some conflicts, particularly in the Middle East and in Africa”. Sources from the Vatican added: “There has been a discussion on the future perspectives of the European project”.
At the end of the private part of the audience, Macron gave Francis a rare copy of Goerges Bernanos 1936 book “Diary of a Country Priest”.
The Pope handed Macron his customary gift for guests, a medal depicting St Martin of Tours, who gave his cloak to a poor man.
Before meeting the Pope, Macron met representatives from the Community of Sant’Egidio, a Catholic NGO which protects migrants. The founder of Sant’Egidio, Andrea Riccardi, said: “We encouraged the adoption of humanitarian corridors for migrants, which we are advocating since a long time”.
Speaking to journalists at a press conference on 26 June in Paris, Macron said he spoke "very freely" with the Pope during the meeting of almost one hour. He added: "We touched on subjects of misunderstanding or incomprehension between France and the Catholic Church in recent years, on which society has evolved and a respectful debate is needed for each side to legitimately find its place."
They had "frank and direct" talks about the migration issue, "but never in the style of one giving a lesson or categorising the policies of this or that government". He said they both spoke of the issue with "lots of humility".
They also exchanged views on the bioethics reforms France is currently debating, but Macron did not reveal if he had made up his mind on which, if any, to support.
The French president rejected suggestions he met the Pope to pander to Catholic voters. "I don't believe in clientelism, especially spiritual clientelism. There is no more a Catholic vote than there is a Muslim vote."
About the prolonged length of their meeting, Macron said: "We didn't look at our watches. It's like that when talks are intense."
French officials stressed that Macron’s visit was strictly Vatican-related, with no meetings scheduled with Italian politicians. The diplomatic relations between Italy and France are extremely tense. The new populist Italian government is angry over France’s policy of sending back migrants who illegally enter France from Italy.
The interior minister Matteo Salvini recently said: “Macron is our number one enemy”. Meanwhile, France recently criticised the Italian administration for refusing to allow a private rescue ship with more than 600 migrants aboard, to dock. Safe harbour for the ship was eventually granted by the Spanish government. Macron recently criticised the attitude of the Italian government, and said, “in Italy there is no emergency on migration”.
During a speech to Church dignitaries in April, Macron attracted criticism from French secularists after calling for the country's notoriously divided Church and state to 'mend' their 'damaged' relationship.