French President Emmanuel Macron will be in Rome on Sunday for the start of a three-day interfaith summit hosted by the Community of Sant’Egidio, a Catholic charity close to Pope Francis and known for its efforts to promote peace and interfaith promote dialogue. particularly in Africa.
Macron, who will meet the pope on Monday, will join the presidents of Italy and Niger at the opening of Sant’Egidio’s annual peace summit — while avoiding the far-right leaders expected to lead Italy’s next government.
The meeting, also attended by French Chief Rabbi Haim Korsia, will be the latest in a series of meetings between Macron and leaders of the Catholic charity, sometimes dubbed the “United Nations of Trastevere” (after a neighborhood in Rome) because of her efforts to heal conflicts around the world.
Marco Impagliazzo, the head of Sant’Egidio, announced the program of the event earlier this month, praising Macron’s vision for European cooperation and relations with Africa. He also defended the French president’s decision to maintain a dialogue with Moscow during the war in Ukraine.
FRANCE 24 spoke to Odon Vallet, a historian of religion, about Macron’s affinity with the Catholic charity and the significance of his trip to Rome, where a right-wing coalition led by a party with neo-fascist roots is about to form a new government.
What is the community of Sant’Egidio and why has Macron turned to it?
Odon Vallet: The Community of Sant’Egidio was founded in Rome in 1968, at a time when Catholic movements were seeking ways to align themselves with progressive forces while fighting the atheism of the May ’68 movement. It is known for its charitable work and philanthropy, a bit like Abbé Pierre [a French priest known for his work helping the poor, homeless and refugees]and its global efforts to promote peace and dialogue among religions.
Sant’Egidio has a voice in France, where it recently took over the parish of Saint-Merri in central Paris. This comes at a time when French Catholics – and indeed the general public – are deeply divided over a number of sensitive issues, including plans to legislate on abortion rights and euthanasia. Macron must rekindle the flame among Catholic voters, which has been extinguished after the euphoria that greeted his first months in office.
Last but not least: Sant’Egidio is present on all continents and especially in Africa, where France has been getting a lot of bad press lately.
How can Sant’Egidio help Macron in Africa?
There is an anti-French sentiment in parts of Africa, not shared by all, but still present. I spend a lot of time in Bénin and I can tell you that this is a huge problem for France, especially now [Russia’s] Vladimir Putin, with his Wagner commandos, is doing everything he can to frustrate French interests in Africa. Sant’Egidio is the opposite of Wagner and Macron is certainly happy to stand next to the former and establish ties with people who are very present in Africa.
>> Read more: France says Russian Wagner mercenaries staged ‘French atrocity’ in Mali
Macron had very warm relations with the outgoing prime minister of Italy, Mario Draghi. Why doesn’t he try to reach his successors while in Rome?
Macron does not want to meet Italy’s next leaders because they come from the far right and even the far right. His concern is that people look at what is happening in Italy and envision the same in France: a government headed by a Marine Le Pen or an Éric Zemmour, perhaps with a few lawmakers from the right wing of the conservative Les Républicains. This merger of the far right and far right would be the worst possible outcome.
On the other hand, Macron is very interested in visiting the Vatican for at least two reasons. The first is that he is relatively close to Pope Francis and knows that the Pope is not eternal; the second is Sant’Egidio.
The Catholic charity is very active in its support of migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean – a tricky issue in both Italy and France. Are Macron and Sant’Egidio in line in this area?
The migrant issue is critical because Italy is the country that has welcomed the largest number from Africa, and because immigration debates are often toxic in France too – as the tragic murder of a schoolgirl just reminded us [far-right politicians lashed out at the government this week for the death of a 12-year-old schoolgirl whose alleged murderer had been ordered to leave France after overstaying her student visa].
A quarter of French Catholic voters, many of whom are practicing, voted Marine Le Pen in the recent presidential election — a percentage equal to that of the general public. It’s a big deal for Macron because it means there’s a real risk that church leaders will one day stop opposing the far right with the steadfastness that characterized Pope Francis, for example.
Macron’s message is that France is a hospitable country, but not at any cost. It is a delicate balancing act for his second and final mandate. His concern is to ensure that the country does not slip into the hands of the far right. To ensure that, he needs help fostering a climate of peace and understanding among members of the public, whether they are French or not.
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