Sarkozy meets Pope after Roma row

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President Nicolas Sarkozy met Pope Benedict XVI yesterday in a visit aimed at smoothing relations with Catholic leaders who have been critical of France’s expulsion of Roma migrants.

Mr Sarkozy appeared tense before his audience with the pontiff but was more relaxed after their talk, which lasted about 30 minutes and focused on international issues.

The visit, organised at the President’s request, follows strong criticism of the French government by Catholic bishops over the clearance in August of several illegal Roma camps and the forced repatriation of hundreds of Roma migrants. In August, the Pope made an apparent reference to the crackdown during a sermon in which he switched into French to make a call to “accept human diversity”.

After the meeting, Mr Sarkozy made a brief visit to St Peter’s Basilica and the chapel of St Petronilla, an early Christian martyr traditionally revered by the Church in France, where Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran said a “prayer for France”.

No public mention was made of the controversy surrounding the Roma issue but Cardinal Tauran’s prayer included an appeal “for the welcome of the persecuted and immigrants”. It was the first time a French president had participated at such a ceremony since the start of the Fifth Republic in 1958. France’s secular constitution and strict separation of church and state generally make her leaders wary of overt religious displays.