François Hollande to meet Pope Francis as controversy over French President's 'affair' rumbles on
The unfortunate timing of François Hollande's first audience with Pope Francis today has prompted smirks in France, amid the complications in the president's love life
François Hollande will hold his first meeting with Pope Francis this morning in unfortunate timing for the French president as he faces the wrath of French Catholics over abortion, gay marriage and total confusion over his love life.
The progressive Argentinian pontiff is highly unlikely to mention "l'affaire" with Julie Gayet, a 41-year old actress or the distress of Valérie Trierweiler, Mr Hollande's official partner.
Le Monde newspaper summed this up with a cartoon of Mr Hollande on a moped with two lovers on the back and Francis smiling magnanimously and saying: “Who I am I to judge?”
Those were the words the Pope used last year in surprisingly tolerant remarks about homosexuality and which Mr Hollande might be glad to hear again today.
But during his private audience with the Pope - expected to last no more than half an hour - Mr Hollande is likely to be grilled on a new law to be approved on Friday that will bolster abortion rights of French women by removing the requirement to prove they are in “distress” to terminate a pregnancy.
A petition signed by almost 115,000 French Catholics calls on Francis to raise their "deep unease and growing concern" with Mr Hollande over a range of government policies including the legalisation of gay marriage, moves towards legalising assisted suicide and surrogacy.
They are also unhappy at the slow government reaction to an activist from the feminist group Femen simulating an abortion and urinating in front of the altar of the church of La Madeleine in Paris.
According to Le Figaro, Jean-Pierre Jouyet, one of Mr Hollande’s oldest friends and head of the Caisse des Dépots bank, warned the unpopular president at Christmas: “Be careful, François, the Church cannot take hits every morning. Don’t forget you need the Catholics too.”
Mr Hollande did eventually denounce Femen’s provocative Church protest at a press conference last week along with all deeds that “profoundly offend believers’ conscience”.
With the Socialists facing heavy losses in municipal elections in March, every vote will count, and, observers say, a photo opportunity with a highly popular Pope could go towards tempering the anger of French Catholics.
In his meeting with Francis, it is likely he will also broach more consensual topics including climate change, the Geneva II talks on Syria and the Israel-Palestine peace process.
Nicolas Sarkozy, Mr Hollande’s predecessor, broke with France’s staunchly secular tradition during a visit to the Pope in 2007, by declaring: “In transmitting and learning the difference between good and evil, the schoolteacher can never replace the priest or the pastor".
He also managed to embarrass French Catholics by spending much of his meeting with the Pope glued to his BlackBerry smart phone.
Mr Hollande, a disciple of Jacques Delors, a Christian Democrat, had a Catholic upbringing and had his four children christened but never married.
In his press conference last week, he said: “The Pope can be useful on several subjects.”