French President Emmanuel Macron will be in Rome on Sunday for the start of a three-day interreligious summit hosted by the Community of Sant’Egidio, a Catholic charity close to Pope Francis that is known for its efforts to foster peace and interfaith dialogue, most notably in Africa.
Macron, who is due to meet the pope on Monday, will attend the opening of Sant’Egidio’s annual peace summit alongside the presidents of Italy and Niger – while avoiding the far-right leaders expected to head Italy’s next government.
The gathering, also attended by France’s chief rabbi Haïm Korsia, will mark the latest in a series of meetings between Macron and leaders of the Catholic charity, sometimes dubbed the “United Nations of Trastevere” (after a neighbourhood of Rome) for its efforts to heal conflicts around the world.
Announcing the event’s programme earlier this month, Marco Impagliazzo, the head of Sant’Egidio, praised Macron’s views on European cooperation and relations with Africa. He also defended the French president’s decision to maintain a dialogue with Moscow amid 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 neofascist roots is poised 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 looking for ways to ally with progressive forces while combating the atheism of the May ’68 movement. It is known for its charity 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 foster peace and dialogue between faiths.
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 wider public – are deeply divided on a number of sensitive issues, including plans to legislate on abortion rights and euthanasia. Macron needs to rekindle the flame with Catholic voters, which has faded after the euphoria that greeted his first months in office.
Last but not least: Sant’Egidio is present across all continents and particularly in Africa, where France has been getting a lot of bad press of late.
How can Sant’Egidio help Macron in Africa?
There is an anti-French sentiment across swathes of Africa, not shared by everyone but present nonetheless. I spend a lot of time in Bénin and I can tell you this is a huge problem for France, particularly now that [Russia’s] Vladimir Putin is doing everything he can to frustrate French interests in Africa through his Wagner commandos. Sant’Egidio is the very opposite of Wagner and Macron is certainly happy to stand with the former and cultivate ties with people who are very present in Africa.
Macron had very warm relations with Italy’s outgoing premier Mario Draghi. Why is he not reaching out to his successors while in Rome?
Macron does not want to meet Italy’s next leaders because they are set to hail from the hard right and indeed the far right. His concern is that people might look at what is happening in Italy and imagine the same happening in France: a government led by a Marine Le Pen or an Éric Zemmour, perhaps with a smattering of lawmakers from the right-wing of the conservative Les Républicains. This merger of the hard right and the 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 pontiff is not eternal; the second is Sant’Egidio.
The Catholic charity is very active in its support for migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean – a vexing issue in both Italy and France. Are Macron and Sant’Egidio in step on this subject?
The migrant issue is crucial because Italy is the country that has welcomed the largest number coming from Africa, and because debates about immigration are often toxic in France as well – as the tragic killing of a schoolgirl has 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 France’s Catholic voters, many of them practising, voted for Marine Le Pen at the recent presidential election – a percentage equal to that of the wider public. It’s a major problem for Macron, because it means there is a genuine risk that church leaders might one day cease to oppose the far right with the steadfastness that has characterised Pope Francis, for instance.
Macron’s message is that France is a welcoming country, but not at any price. It’s a delicate balancing act for his second and last mandate. His concern is to ensure the country does not slide into the hands of the far right. To ensure that, he needs help in fostering a climate of peace and understanding between members of the public, whether they are French or not.