François Hollande affair allegations overshadow meeting with Pope Francis

Between awkward greeting and friendly farewell, French president and pontiff hold private tête à tête at the Vatican

As you would expect from someone who once chuckled magnanimously as a live lamb was draped around his neck, Pope Francis likes to play the role of kindly grandfather, patting young heads, kissing babies and generally smiling at the world before him.

But if it was a friendly face that François Hollande was counting on for his first, rather ill-timed trip to the Vatican, he will have been sorely disappointed. Against a backdrop of frescoed walls and furious speculation, the French president was met at the apostolic palace by a face that was more thunder than divine light.

“I am very happy to be welcomed here,” Hollande was heard telling his host. He didn’t look it. Small and besuited amid a sea of sashes, medals and gowns, he looked for all the world like a naughty schoolboy called in to see the headmaster. And there was no confessional in sight.

The agenda was earnest, as they are wont to be on occasions like this. The 35-minute conversation revolved around such pressing subjects as respect for religious communities, the situations in Syria and Central African Republic, and the separation of church and state. Of the separation of man and woman, not a word.

“If there is a word that brought us together,” Hollande essayed, in a bold attempt at hauteur, “it is dignity, the defence of human dignity.” Perhaps in an attempt to preserve his own, there were no questions allowed following the brief declaration.

Had there been, the conversation might have taken a startlingly different turn. The question the French political class really want answered is not “can the church and state live happily side by side?” but can the president and first lady do so. Rattled by allegations of an affair with the actor Julie Gayet, Hollande must decide soon whether his “official partner” Valérie Trierweiler will remain so for an upcoming trip to the US.

For now, for Trierweiler at least, it is business as usual. Reportedly ignoring the advice of presidential advisers, she will undertake a two-day official visit to Mumbai next week for the charity Action Contre la Faim. The Elysée was less than happy, according to le Parisien. Among her commitments is a gala dinner at the luxury Taj Mahal hotel, with the theme of malnutrition. Officials will be anxious to avoid Trierweiler appearing solo in photographs, recalling Diana, Princess of Wales outside the Taj Mahal amid the collapse of the royal marriage.

Despite their explorations of what the Vatican termed “the family”, it was uncertain whether the pope and the president concerned themselves with such issues during their behind-closed-doors tête à tête. More likely, they chose to dwell on what Hollande said were numerous points of agreement on “the big issues” of international politics.

Whatever it was, it seemed to work. At the end they emerged, both smiling this time, and exchanged gifts. For Hollande there were some pontifical medallions; for the Argentinian there was a book about Saint Francis of Assisi. “This is your patron, too,” said the pope to his namesake, a genial grandad once more.

Before long it was time to say goodbye. “Bon voyage,” said Francis. “A bientôt,” said François. Off he went. And if he was relieved, he wasn’t going to tell.

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