French President Emmanuel Macron held an “intense” meeting with Pope Francis during his first official visit to the Vatican on Tuesday, discussing global issues including the fate of migrants coming to Europe.
The tete-a-tete between the Argentine pontiff and Macron in the Vatican’s ornate library lasted 57 minutes — the longest between Francis and a head of state.
They also discussed secularism, inter-religious dialogue and climate change, the French presidency said in a statement that described a “very free and very intense exchange”.
Macron’s visit with the pope, who has called for “solidarity” with migrants, came as the thorny issue of migration casts deep divisions within the European Union.
After the meeting, Macron said France will be one of six European countries to take in some of the 233 migrants on board the NGO rescue ship Lifeline, which has been stranded for days in the Mediterranean after being turned away by Italy.
The French president earlier had breakfast with Rome’s Community of Sant’Egidio — a charity with ties to the Vatican that plays a role in welcoming migrants, and organising “humanitarian corridors” bringing Syrian refugees to Europe.
The programme, which is open to vulnerable Muslims and Christians alike, is an alternative to dangerous smuggling routes.
– ‘Truly moved’ –
After his meeting with Francis, Macron attended a ceremony where he was made an honorary canon of St John Lateran, the cathedral of Rome.
The tradition dates back to the 15th century when the French state and church were indistinguishable.
The French president said he was “truly moved” by the honour in a speech.
Several of Macron’s predecessors declined to go to the Vatican to accept the title, including socialists Francois Mitterrand and Francois Hollande, in order to avoid associating themselves with religious imagery.
Macron’s decision to attend the ceremony has drawn criticism in France, which is strictly secular under a landmark 1905 law that separated the state from the church.
“I decided to accept this invitation because it belongs to a tradition of harmony and friendship between France and the Vatican to which I am attached”, Macron said in his speech.
Francis and the French president smiled and embraced each other as they left their meeting.
The French president offered the Pope a 1949 edition in Italian of “The Diary of a Country Priest” by French Catholic writer Georges Bernanos.
Francis presented Macron with a bronze medal of Saint Martin, a fourth century symbol of generosity, and the main texts from his papacy.
Giving the medal to Macron, the Pope said it was the “vocation of those in government to protect the poorest”.
After the meeting, Macron said he had met with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte on Monday evening, but kept the informal talk discreet out of respect for Vatican protocol.
Past talks between the pope and a president have never exceeded 50 minutes — Francis spoke with former US president Barack Obama for 50 minutes and with his successor Donald Trump for 30 minutes.