Leaving scandal at home, France's Hollande pays visit to Pope Francis

President François Hollande made his first visit to Pope Francis as criticism grows at home among French Catholics opposed to his socially permissive policies.

Gabriel Bouys / AP
French President Francois Hollande, left, meets with Pope Francis on the occasion of their private audience at the Vatican, Friday, Jan. 24, 2014. Hollande met Friday with Pope Francis amid tensions in his private life over a gossip magazine's report about an alleged affair with an actress.

The timing for French President François Hollande's first audience with Pope Francis couldn't be more awkward after a gossip magazine reported an alleged affair between the president and an actress. 

The daily Le Monde ran a front-page cartoon of President Hollande on a motorbike carrying two women, and the pontificate saying “Who am I to judge?” – an echo of his comment last year on homosexuality. 

But, personal matters aside, the timing of the visit is in some ways perfect for the beleaguered French president, even as a small bomb exploded near a French church in central Rome. No one was injured in the blast. 

Among Mr. Hollande's biggest foes are traditionalist Catholics, a small minority in this staunchly secular country that has grown as a strong critical force targeting the socialist administration that legalized gay marriage, moved to loosen restrictions on abortion, and considers changing laws on assisted suicide.

Anne Muxel, a political scientist and sociologist at the Center for Political Research at Sciences Po in Paris, says that the presidential visit to the Vatican is not part of a broader strategy to woo Catholics. But Hollande may try to defuse some so-called culture war issues at home. “These issues in France today are a point of conflict within society. There is an interior fracture in which the Catholics play an important role,” she says.

And even if Hollande can't find much common ground with conservative Catholics on family and other social issues, a papal audience can highlight the two leaders' rhetorical commitment to social and economic justice. 

Like other traditionally Catholic countries in Europe, France has turned away from the church. In Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project, only about 15 percent of French Catholics said that religion was “very important” to them personally in nine polls conducted since 2002. Only around 10 percent of French Catholics said they attended mass weekly.

But, to the surprise of the secular majority, the months leading up to the legalization of gay marriage saw large marches and sporadic violence from which the Catholic community emerged as a focal point. This week Catholics protested again over a decision by lawmakers to increase access to abortion. Catholics say the action is tantamount to “banalizing” it, echoing the pope's characterization of abortion as the epitome of modern society's “throw-away culture.”

French bishops have also condemned government promises to debate assisted suicide. And over 100,000 Catholics signed a petition to the pope to underline their opposition to Hollande's liberal brand of leadership. 

Downplaying hot-button issues

Speaking before the Vatican visit, an adviser in the Élysée told reporters that the trip's objectives included sending "a strong message of dialogue and attention to the Catholics,” according to Agence France-Presse.

The Vatican said that Friday's talks focused on topics of family, bioethics, and respect for religious freedom. On many such matters, no bridge is likely to be built. But hot-button social issues are exactly what Pope Francis has said from the outset that he wishes to downplay, to appeal to the Catholic middle. 

It is likely that the two parties also discussed goals for international peace and social justice, from Europe to Africa to the Middle East – especially the civil strife in Syria – in talks that were closed off to reporters. 

"I expressed the wish that the Vatican might welcome the democratic Syrian coalition, to make it clear that peace must be found through a political solution that allows for pluralism," Hollande said after the talks concluded. 

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