Pope to Meet Macron and Defend Migrants’ Plight in Marseille

Pope Francis will travel 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 will attend 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.

Isabelle de Gaulmyn, a top editor at La Croix, France’s leading Catholic newspaper, said that for Francis, “what is important is to discuss Mediterranean-related issues like migration and the environment.”

Francis has championed the cause of migrants since the beginning of his papacy, lamenting indifference to their plight and repeatedly criticizing world leaders for failing to adequately address the issue of deadly Mediterranean crossings.

He once took Syrian refugees with him on the papal plane, and his first official trip outside Rome, in 2013, was to Lampedusa, the Italian island that has become a gateway to Europe for many migrants and where a recent surge in arrivals has underscored the continent’s inability to agree on a common migration and asylum policy.

Francis visited Lampedusa, the Italian island that has become a gateway to Europe for many migrants, in 2013.Credit…Alessandra Tarantino/Associated Press

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.

Shortly after his arrival in Marseille on Friday afternoon, Francis is expected to visit the Notre-Dame de la Garde Basilica, which overlooks the city. He will lead a prayer there, 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.

François Thomas, the president of SOS Méditerranée, an aid group that operates a rescue vessel for shipwrecked migrants, said the number of deaths had increased in recent months, partly because more migrants attempt the crossings during clement summer weather, and partly because of external factors like the ongoing chaos in Libya, a government crackdown in Tunisia and an Italian law that limits the time rescue vessels can spend at sea.

Crumpled boats used by migrants at a small port outside Sfax, Tunisia, in May.Credit…Laura Boushnak for The New York Times

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.

Some opponents criticized President Emmanuel Macron, right, with King Charles III of Britain on Thursday in Paris, for latching onto the pope’s trip to the French port city of Marseille.Credit…Ludovic Marin/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

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.

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