France's Sarkozy and Pope discuss Europe and hostages

VATICAN CITY Thu Dec 20, 2007 12:51pm EST

France's President Nicolas Sarkozy waits on the steps of the Elysee Palace in Paris December 17, 2007. Sarkozy met Pope Benedict on Thursday on a trip to Rome during which he will also meet Prime Minister Romano Prodi and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero. REUTERS/John Schults

France's President Nicolas Sarkozy waits on the steps of the Elysee Palace in Paris December 17, 2007. Sarkozy met Pope Benedict on Thursday on a trip to Rome during which he will also meet Prime Minister Romano Prodi and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero.

Credit: Reuters/John Schults

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - French President Nicolas Sarkozy met Pope Benedict on Thursday and later Sarkozy made an impassioned appeal to France to remember its Christian roots.

Sarkozy, who was raised a Catholic but is twice divorced, also invited the Pope to visit France next year.

The Pope and Sarkozy held some 25 minutes of private talks in the pontiff's study. As they sat down Sarkozy told the Pope his French -- learned at school in Germany -- was "remarkable".

A Vatican statement said the talks were centered around "the future of Europe, conflicts in the Middle East, social and political problems of some African countries and the drama of hostages".

Sarkozy has recently made appeals for the release of French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt and other hostages who have been held captive since 2002 by Colombian rebels.

Before leaving the Vatican, Sarkozy held talks with Secretary of State Cardinal Tarciscio Bertone, visited St Peter's Basilica and paid homage at the tomb of the late Pope John Paul II in the basilica's crypt.

On Thursday night, Sarkozy was inducted as honorary canon of the Basilica of St. John's in Rome, the Pope's cathedral in his capacity as bishop of the Italian capital.

In a speech that was far more positive towards religions than most French presidents have been, Sarkozy spoke of his country as "eldest daughter of the Church," a traditional title most French people avoid using now.

"We need the contribution of the Catholic Church as well as that of other great religious and spiritual movements to enlighten our choices and build our future," he said.

"The roots of France are essentially Christian ... but no one disputes that France's secularist system today is a freedom: the freedom to believe or not, to practice a religion and change your faith... the freedom for parents to give their children an education in line with their beliefs...," he said.

Sarkozy said secularism, however, could not negate the past.

"Like Benedict XVI, I think that a nation which ignores the ethical, spiritual and religious legacy of its history commits a crime against its culture," he said.

The French head of state has traditionally been given the title of honorary canon since French kings made large donations to support the cathedral in the 15th century. (Additional reporting by Philip Pullella, Silvia Aloisi and Tom Heneghan)

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