French President Nicolas Sarkozy met Friday with the pope and top Vatican officials in a fence-mending visit following France's controversial crackdown on Gypsies, while a top Vatican cardinal urged France to welcome immigrants and those who have been persecuted.
Sarkozy's government has linked Gypsies, or Roma, to crime, dismantled hundreds of their shantytowns and expelled more than 1,000 Roma in recent months, sending them home to Romania and Bulgaria.
The crackdown has been criticized by many Roman Catholics, and Pope Benedict XVI himself appeared to weigh in on it with a subtle message about tolerance over the summer.
Speaking in French to pilgrims gathered at his summer residence Aug. 22, Benedict urged people to accept "legitimate human diversity" and asked parents to "educate your children about universal brotherhood," a statement that was widely interpreted as being directed at France.
On Friday, French Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, who heads the Vatican's office for interreligious dialogue, added his voice to the chorus. He referred to the issue during a private prayer service he celebrated in Sarkozy's honor in a chapel inside St. Peter's Basilica.
As Sarkozy and his delegation listened, Tauran asked for prayers for France and its leaders, for the "absolute respect for life," for peace, justice "and that immigrants and those who are persecuted are welcomed."
Sarkozy has defended the expulsions, saying they are part of an overall crackdown on illegal immigrants and crime. Most of the Roma in France are from Romania and Bulgaria, and as EU citizens, they have a right to travel to France, but must get permission to work or live there in the long term. The government also says most of the Roma are leaving voluntarily, with a small stipend from France.
In an opinion piece in the International Herald Tribune newspaper Friday, Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner defended the government's position, saying, "like any other government, it is the duty of the French authorities to enforce the law. It is as simple as that."
The Vatican made no explicit mention of the matter in its communique issued after Sarkozy's meetings, saying only that there was a shared desire to continue to collaborate "on questions of common interest."
Sarkozy arrived for his audience with the pope about 15 minutes late, looking tense. But by the end of the half-hour visit, he appeared relaxed as he presented the pope with a collection of books and received in exchange a ceramic model and print of St. Peter's Basilica.
Sarkozy then asked the pope for an extra rosary _ the gift Benedict usually gives delegation members traveling with visiting heads of state. Benedict's personal secretary Monsignor Georg Ganswein fetched one from a drawer and gave it to Sarkozy.
After the audience, Sarkozy was to have lunch with the Vatican No. 2, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone.
Le Parisien newspaper said Sarkozy's visit to the Vatican was seen as a chance to repair his image with France's Catholics, many of whom have been disturbed above all by his "'bling-bling' image, his relationship to money, and quite simply his way of being."
The Rev. Philippe Verdin, a Dominican priest who published a book of interviews with Sarkozy in 2004, said Sarkozy was engaged in a "great spiritual quest."
"He is very intuitive and understands how important prayer is: He's a man who prays," Le Parisien newspaper quoted Verdin as saying. "He is very concerned about giving grace to God. I am sure he thanked God for allowing him to meet Carla Bruni."
Bruni, Sarkozy's wife, did not attend the papal audience Friday.
Some observers complained that Sarkozy showed a lack of gravitas during his 2007 visit to the Vatican. News reports at the time said he was seen sneaking a peek at a text message on his cell phone while he presented his delegation to the pope.
Bizarrely, Sarkozy's delegation that year also included standup comic Jean-Marie Bigard, whose humor is often described as crude.
Associated Press reporter Angela Doland contributed from Paris.