What’s to discuss? Pope and Hollande all set for meeting

French leader doubtless happy to talk of poverty, North-South divide and human rights

French President François Hollande and Pope Francis: what will the two men have to say to one another? Photographs: EPA

French President François Hollande and Pope Francis: what will the two men have to say to one another? Photographs: EPA

Wed, Jan 22, 2014, 15:33

When Pope Francis receives French President Francois Hollande in a private Vatican audience on Friday, what will the two men have to say to one another?

Given the current turbulent moment in the life and times of Monsieur Le Président, the French leader will doubtless be happy to talk to the Pope about poverty, the North-South divide and human rights issues.

It seems unlikely the Pope will use the occasion to stress the importance of family life and marital fidelity, nor can he be expected to recall the president’s little joke last February when news of the resignation of Pope Benedict broke. On that occasion, Mr Hollande said the Catholic Church should be left in peace to organise the election of Benedict’s successor, adding: “However, we won’t be putting up a candidate…”

For the Holy See, however, there seems to be little sense of embarrassment about this visit. Commentators have inevitably suggested that crisis-ridden Mr Hollande is hoping some of the “Francis Effect” will rub off on him. After all, the pope enjoys an estimated 85 per cent popularity rating with the French - rather higher than the president.

Even if cynics point out that Hollande has already been to Rome four times since his election in 2012 without once dropping in on the pope, Vatican officials respond that this time he travels to Rome exclusively for an audience with the pope. This audience is no mere addendum to an already established programme.

Then, too, there is the consideration that the president of France is nearly always welcome in the Vatican. After all, the Holy See and France have had some form of diplomatic relations since the 5th century, whilst France itself is often referred to as the “eldest daughter of the Church” because of its unbroken communion with the Bishop of Rome since the 2nd century.

Whilst Mr Hollande’s troubled private life is unlikely to feature in Friday’s talks, the audience could still stumble over a couple of thorny issues such as the Socialist government’s recent legalisation of gay marriage and plans to legalise euthanasia, both contrary to Catholic teaching.

For that reason, when he meets with the pope and later with secretary of state, neo-Cardinal Paolo Parolin, the president will doubtless be relieved to discuss issues such as conflict in parts of Africa, the protection of Christian minorities in the Middle East and a whole gamut of human rights concerns.

As of now, the exact composition of the Hollande delegation has not been made public. One imagines that, unlike most leaders who visit the pope, Monsieur Le Président will be without “consort”. After his audience, the president will hold a press conference in Rome but it will be “sans questions” (no questions), with the president making a statement.

Sure, why would anybody have questions for him anyway?