Pope Francis traveled to southern France on Friday for a two-day visit in the port city of Marseille, where he is expected to meet with President Emmanuel Macron and defend the plight of migrants attempting dangerous Mediterranean crossings to Europe.
Francis is attending the closing session of the Mediterranean Meetings, a weeklong gathering of about 70 bishops, youth activists and representatives of other religions from around the Mediterranean Sea, and he has stressed repeatedly that his trip is not an official state visit.
“I will go to Marseille, but not to France,” Francis said in August. “There is a problem that concerns me, which is the Mediterranean.” He added that “the exploitation of migrants is criminal.”
Still, hot on the heels of a state visit by King Charles III of Britain, who was headed to Bordeaux on Friday, Mr. Macron has seized the opportunity for a meeting with the pontiff.
Migration, Francis told thousands of faithful gathered in St. Peter’s Square last week, “represents a challenge that is not easy, as we also see from the news in recent days, but which must be faced together.”
Ms. de Gaulmyn said that “politicians love to be seen with the pope,” especially Mr. Macron, a political disrupter who has long been fascinated with Francis’ willingness to shake things up in the church.
Meeting the pope, a moral authority on the issue of migration, “will also help him lean leftward a bit,” Ms. de Gaulmyn said of Mr. Macron, a centrist whose original pitch to voters was that he transcended traditional political divisions but who often tilts right.
After arriving in Marseille on Friday afternoon, Francis was expected to lead a prayer at the Notre-Dame de la Garde Basilica, which overlooks the city, followed by an interfaith moment of remembrance at a monument for sailors and migrants lost at sea.
Since 2014, over 28,000 migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe have been recorded dead or missing, according to the International Organization for Migration, a United Nations agency. There have been nearly 180,000 sea arrivals in 2023 so far, according to the United Nations refugee agency.
Francis’ visit is important, Mr. Thomas said, because he is one of the few global leaders who has unequivocally defended the plight of migrants.
“He has always had a message of solidarity, of fraternity on this issue and on the Mediterranean tragedy,” he said. “We have to have the courage to say that we can’t let people drown at Europe’s doors.”
But immigration has become a political flashpoint for European governments, especially those facing strong far-right parties.
Gérald Darmanin, Mr. Macron’s interior minister, said this week that France would help manage the flow of migrants arriving in Lampedusa but would not take in any. He said many were from countries like Senegal and Gambia and had no legitimate claims to asylum.
“We need to fight illegal immigration in Europe, in France and in Italy, and we aren’t going to stem a flow — which affects our integration abilities — by taking in more people,” Mr. Darmanin told TF1 television. But he also insisted that France would welcome asylum seekers if they fit the right criteria.
Marseille is a port city shaped by immigration from European countries like Italy, Spain and Armenia as well as from France’s former African colonies. It is plagued by pockets of extreme poverty, strained social services and deadly violence related to drug trafficking, but it is also one of France’s most cosmopolitan cities, a predominantly working-class mix of ethnic and religious communities.
On Saturday, Francis will meet with Mr. Macron before driving to the stadium, the Vélodrome, to celebrate Mass. About 100,000 people are expected to follow the ceremony on giant screens outside.
It is not uncommon for French leaders to attend religious ceremonies such as funerals, but Mr. Macron will be the first French president to attend a papal Mass since 1980, when Valéry Giscard d’Estaing attended one celebrated by Pope John Paul II in Paris.
France has a strong tradition of secularism, and Mr. Macron’s expected presence at the ceremony is ruffling some feathers — especially after a contentious decision to ban the full-length robe worn by some Muslim students in schools.
“No, Mr. President, it’s not your place to go to the Pope’s mass,” Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leftist leader, said on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter. “The secular state neither recognizes nor subsidizes any religion.”
The French presidency pointed out that Mr. Macron had attended other religious events as president, like an iftar dinner organized by Muslim organizations. And he has insisted that he will not participate in the Mass.
“I won’t go as a Catholic; I’ll go as the president of the French Republic,” Mr. Macron said last week, adding: “I’ll go out of courtesy and respect.”
Elisabetta Povoledo contributed reporting from Rome.