Pope Francis and Emmanuel Macron are forming an unlikely alliance

The attention French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit last week received was somewhat out of the ordinary – at least, the attention it garnered might have seemed so, when measured against that which the average courtesy visit of the average head of state receives. Reporters made note of the length of the visit – at 57 minutes, it was reportedly Francis’s longest sit-down meeting with a head of state – and though Francis has appeared warmly engaged with other world leaders, the video of Macron’s leave-taking bises was a scene-stealer.

To be sure, the anodyne statement the Holy See’s Press Office released sent reporters in search of other things about which to write. Predictably, it was boilerplate: “During the cordial discussions, the good existing bilateral relations between the Holy See and France were highlighted, and the contribution of religions to the promotion of the common good of the country, with particular reference to the commitment of the Church, was noted.” Of course it was.

When drafting these statements, it is important to mention global issues of shared interest: the environment, migration, disarmament and conflict resolution – all boxes ticked in the press release. Then, make note of “views exchanged” on areas of strategic importance: eg the Middle East and Africa; when it is a European leader, make sure to say they discussed the present and future of Europe. Check, check, check. (On the news desk at Vatican Radio, while we waited for the statement from the Press Office we would bet on the precise issues and the order of their mention.)

It is also important to remember that, when it comes to relations with the Holy See, France is not the average country: she is fille aînée de l’église (“eldest daughter of the Church”). Her heads of state have been proto-canons of Rome’s cathedral basilica since the 16th century.

This practice was in some sense a standard one. In the Middle Ages, other crowned heads of Europe enjoyed similar honours (England at St Paul Outside the Walls), which they generally received by correspondence. The second half of the 20th century saw an increase in the practice of ceremonial possession or installation for French republican heads of state, though it has never been de rigueur. Macron’s immediate predecessor, François Hollande, chose to forego the ceremony.

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