Pope Francis is on a visit to Marseille for two days as part of a trip that carries a subtle diplomatic warning about the migration crisis.
The visit is aimed at highlighting the exploitation of migrants but will include visits, speeches, conferences and a community mass centred on migrants.
The journey includes a meeting with the French president tomorrow morning where the two are expected to discuss immigration issues in light of the Pope’s schedule.
He will be greeted by Prime minister Elisabeth Borne at the airport upon landing at around 16:15 today and will begin prayers at Notre-Dame de la Garde, Marseille’s most famous Catholic basilica, an hour later.
The location is dedicated to fishermen lost at sea and migrants and Pope Francis is expected to mourn the loss of life of migrants in the Mediterranean sea by holding communion before a tribute stele at 18:00.
Saturday morning is also dedicated to meeting “fragile and precarious” people before the Pope participates in the final session of the Rencontres Méditerranéennes - a gathering of bishops and priests - and holds a last mass at the Orange Vélodrome stadium.
‘Marseille, not France’
“I will go to Marseille, not France,” the Pope reportedly told journalists on August 6 in an effort to dismiss any suggestion that he was taking part in an official state visit.
“I am preoccupied with the problem around the Mediterranean sea. This is why I am coming to France. The exploitation of migrants is a criminal activity,” he added.
The schedule did not initially include a meeting with Mr Macron but the Elysée Palace insisted the two meet up despite the unofficial nature of the Pope’s visit, Le Figaro reports. The president is to attend the Mass at Orange Vélodrome, it adds.
Pope Francis has never expressed his views on France and the conduct of its policies around immigration issues.
But his visit - while planned two months ago - comes as France declared it will not welcome any of the 7,000 migrants that landed on the Lampedusa island last week, a tiny Italian island and a European entry hotspot.
The ministry of Interior has reinforced police controls in Menton, a southern France city which borders Italian town Ventimiglia where migrants stack up in hopes of joining France.
A major issue for the Pope
The migration crisis has been one of the most important issues brought forward by Pope Francis who went on visiting Lampedusa in the early stages of the crisis in 2013 for his first official visit outside of Rome.
While there, he denounced the effects of the “globalisation of indifference” and condemned the thousands of migrant deaths in the Mediterranean sea. Since 2016, between 3,000 to 4,500 migrants have drowned there trying to reach Europe, states the International Organization for Migration.
The United Nations Organization denounced a “persistence and intolerable crisis”.
The Pope also went to the Greek island of Lesbos in 2016, another hotspot on the migration route, where he said “We are all migrants”, himself the grandson of Italian immigrants.
The last time a Pope visited Marseille was in 1533 under Clément VII - and it too carried diplomatic significance but of a very different type.
He was invited to the wedding of 14-year-old niece Catherine de Medici to Henry II, in a diplomatic move to tie royal alliances with France and fight the Holy Roman empire.