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Pope backs Sarkozy’s bid for religious values

Pope Benedict and President Nicolas Sarkozy urged France yesterday to reconsider its strict separation of church and state and to allow religious "values" to influence public life.

M. Sarkozy and Pope Benedict XVI, at the start of his first visit to France, made speeches which were intended to calm – but may inflame – debate over the French "secular" tradition.

Pope Benedict called for a more "open" approach to secular government, which would accept the Christian "roots" of French society.

M. Sarkozy repeated a controversial call for a "positive secularism" which would allow religious – not just Christian – values to influence public life.

However, both men stressed their comments were intended to embrace and not divide France's multi-religious society.

Pope Benedict is controversial in France. His efforts to rehabilitate a French Catholic movement which split with Rome in the 1980s have exasperated a mainstream church struggling to maintain Catholicism as a force in French life. Fewer than 5 per cent of people go to Mass but 70 per cent identify as Catholic.

More than 200,000 mainly young people are expected to attend an open-air Mass which the Pope will celebrate in Paris today. Tomorrow, he will travel to Lourdes to mark the 150th anniversary of the apparitions of the Virgin Mary.

M. Sarkozy and his wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, met the Pope at Orly airport.

The President – although not a regularly practising Catholic and twice divorced – generated heated debate in December when he suggested that religious, especially Catholic values, should be part of political life. Since 1905, France has maintained a strict separation of church and state.

The Pope took up the theme in two speeches – at the Elysée Palace and before 700 intellectuals representing all religions and non-religion. A distinction between politics and religion was "fundamentally important" to guarantee freedom of worship, he said, but called for a more "open" approach to secularism.

Religion had an "irreplaceable role in the formation of the human conscience" and ethics.

François Bayrou, the centrist candidate in last year's presidential election, refused an invitation to the Pope's reception at the Elysée Palace, saying that the Pope should not have been treated like a political leader and invited to the home of the head of the French secular state.