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Macron defends decision to attend Pope's mass in Marseille

By RFI
Europe © Vatican Media/Handout via REUTERS
MON, 18 SEP 2023 LISTEN
© Vatican Media/Handout via REUTERS

French President Emmanuel Macron has defended his plan to attend a huge mass to be celebrated by Pope Francis in the southern city of Marseille this week, after critics said he was failing to live up to France's secular values.

"I think it's my place to be there. I won't be there as a Catholic, I'll be there as president of the republic, which is indeed secular," Macron said during a trip to Semur-en-Auxois in central France.

"I will not myself carry out any religious practice during the mass," he added.

Secular France
Left-wing politicians especially have attacked Macron's choice to attend the religious service during the Pope's two-day visit, which comes as the government is cracking down on school pupils wearing the abaya, a garment popular with some Muslim women, in the name of secularism.

"I respect faith and people with faith. But I disagree with an elected official, and especially the president, taking part in a religious ceremony in his official capacity," France Unbowed (LFI) lawmaker Alexis Corbiere wrote on social media.

 Macron said that "the state is neutral. Public services are neutral, we will protect schools as well as we have reiterated" as pupils return for the new academic year.

Lucien Jaume, a philosopher and expert on France's separation of church and state, told AFP that "a head of state shouldn't participate in a religious service in that capacity, except in the specific case where the republic is paying national homage to a notable person".

He cited the example of 2017, when Macron attended a mass in memory of a priest killed in his church by jihadists.

But Thierry Rambaud, a law professor in Paris, said the pope "is a foreign head of state, it's normal for the president to meet him and be present at the ceremony".

"Of course Emmanuel Macron is president of a secular republic, but many of his fellow citizens are of Catholic faith and it's a way of showing respect," he added.

Fundraiser for churches 
Francis's mass at Velodrome stadium in Marseille is expected to draw tens of thousands of people, marking the high point of a two-day visit on September 22-23.

Macron also announced Friday a public fundraiser offering tax breaks to individuals chipping in to restore church buildings in French villages.

The scheme would aim to "mobilise 200 million euros ($213 million) over four years", he said, arguing that many small towns found the cost of renovations "unsustainable".

Up to 3,000 small-town churches are believed to be in danger, according to France's Observatory of Religious Heritage.

"People are attached to this heritage, whether they believe or not," Macron said.

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