A summit in the shadow of terror

A summit in the shadow of terror

Meeting at the Vatican: Francois Hollande and Pope Francis © Gabriel Bouys (CBA)

Nice, Rouen, Paris: What reads like the attractive itinerary of a European tourist has become a route of terror. When French President Francois Hollande visits Pope Francis, there is much to discuss.

Islamists have made the climate in France, already bad in view of weak economic figures and stagnation on the labor market, even worse. Hapless socialist Francois Hollande can use all the support he can get at the moment. It remains to be seen whether the president may have to hear critical inquiries beyond solidarity with the victims at the one-on-one meeting with his namesake Francis at the Vatican on Wednesday.

France's society and Christianity

For France's society, still of Pope John Paul II. (1978-2005) proudly called the "oldest daughter of the Church," has since increasingly turned away from Christianity. The relationship between secularism and laicism has become a constant source of tension. In other words, does the state use its ideological neutrality to protect and promote the free practice of religion – or does it define public space as free of religious confession?? The contradictory rulings of French courts on the wearing of religious symbols reflect enormous social as well as official uncertainty.

With various laws, Hollande's socialists have since 2012 razed former bastions of bourgeois-Christian values. "Gay marriage" was introduced, embryonic stem cell research conditionally allowed; plus a push for active euthanasia and liberalization of abortion laws. The diplomatic tug-of-war over the appointment of the homosexual Laurent Stefanini (56) as Paris ambassador to the Holy See, which was only settled in May, has by no means been forgotten. At Wednesday afternoon's audience, Hollande will be accompanied by Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve and eventual appointee Philippe Zeller, 63.

Government intervention against Lyon Cardinal Barbari

And finally, the extraordinary intervention of the secular government of Manuel Valls against the Cardinal of Lyon, Philippe Barbarin. After accusations by a former abuse victim that the current Primate of France had not pursued corresponding accusations against a priest in a responsible position years ago, Prime Minister Valls had blatantly (and very early) demanded Barbarin's resignation. Meanwhile, the investigation has been dropped.

In the end, however, even the Vatican knows that France is needed as an intact political actor in order to continue to be an engine for the sputtering EU. And besides, beating an already beaten dog even further? The second meeting of Francis and Francois (after January 2014) is likely to be dominated by the Islamist terror in France and in the postcolonial francophone world.

Islam and violence not to be equated

The two agree that Islam and violence – even despite recent attacks – are by no means synonymous. This is important for a country where arguably more than 5 million Muslims are the second largest religious community among 66 million French people. Most of them are immigrants from former colonies in North Africa: Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. Centers of Islam (and Islamism) in France are the suburbs of Paris, Marseille, Lyon and Strasbourg.

Francis recently clarified that the terrorists of the "Islamic State" can be described as violent, but not Islam as a whole. "When I speak of Islamic violence," the pope said, "I must also speak of Catholic violence".

In this context, the topic of Jacques Hamel should also be interesting. Islamists brutally slit 85-year-old priest's throat near Rouen in late July. The region's archbishop, Dominique Lebrun, threw a stone in the water over the weekend: Hamel could well be beatified as a Christian martyr.

France in election campaign mode 2017

One thing is clear, despite all the bluster of day-to-day politics: France has long been in election campaign mode in 2017. In March, the bourgeois fidgeter Nicolas Sarkozy was with Francis – and he won't have minded hitting hard into the notch of socialist gaffes. The candidate of the right-wing populist Front National, Marine Le Pen, is currently still a no-go at the Vatican. So now incumbent Hollande has his opportunity to raise his profile. In the end, where will the Vatican see France's path between Scylla, Charybdis and cholera??

According to Italian media reports, the decision for Hollande's papal visit came after the murder of priest Jacques Hamel near Rouen on 26. July. The act had been claimed by the terrorist militia "Islamic State" (IS). Before his meeting with Francis, Hollande is to visit the French national church "San Luigi dei Francesi" near the Piazza Navona in Rome to commemorate the victims of terror, according to media reports.

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