Pope, Macron talk about migrants

Francis challenges European leaders to open their borders

Pope Francis arrives at the "Velodrome Stadium", in Marseille, France, to celebrate mass, Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023. Francis, during a two-day visit, will join Catholic bishops from the Mediterranean region on discussions that will largely focus on migration. (AP Photo/Daniel Cole)

MARSEILLE, France -- Pope Francis challenged French President Emmanuel Macron and other European leaders to open their ports to people fleeing hardship and poverty, insisting Saturday that the continent isn't facing a migration "emergency" but rather a long-term reality that governments must deal with humanely.

For a second straight day in the French port city of Marseille, Francis took aim at European countries that have used "alarmist propaganda" to justify closing their doors to migrants, and tried to shame them into responding with charity instead. He called for migrants to have legal pathways to citizenship, and for the Mediterranean Sea that so many cross to reach Europe to be a beacon of hope, not a graveyard of desperation.

The Mediterranean, Francis told Macron and a gathering of regional bishops, "cries out for justice, with its shores that on the one hand exude affluence, consumerism and waste, while on the other there is poverty and instability."

The pope's visit to the city in southern France, which drew an estimated 150,000 well-wishers Saturday, comes as Italy's far right-led government has reacted to a new wave of arriving migrants by threatening to organize a naval blockade of Tunisia and to step up repatriations. The French government, for its part, has beefed up patrols on its southern border to stop migrants in Italy from crossing over.

After the bishops' meeting ended, Macron and Francis held a private, half-hour meeting. They spoke about migration issues and a series of other topics, the French presidency said, adding that both leaders share a "joint will" to bring human solutions to the situation.

France is a "host country" to migrants -- especially to asylum-seekers -- and is supporting European solidarity policies, including through financing and fighting human trafficking, the French presidency said. The Vatican provided no readout of the meeting.

Macron's centrist government has taken a harder line on migration and security issues after coming under criticism from French conservatives and the far right. With elections for the European Union's parliament set for next year, Macron is pushing for the EU to strengthen its external borders and to be more efficient in deporting individuals who are denied entry.

"May we let ourselves be moved by the stories of so many of our unfortunate brothers and sisters who have the right both to emigrate and not to emigrate, and not become closed in indifference," Francis said. "In the face of the terrible scourge of the exploitation of human beings, the solution is not to reject but to ensure, according to the possibilities of each, an ample number of legal and regular entrances."

Francis' two-day trip was scheduled months ago, but it is taking place as mass migration to Europe is once again making headlines. Nearly 7,000 migrants who boarded smugglers boats in Tunisia came ashore on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa within a day last week, briefly outnumbering the resident population.

Nevertheless, Francis said talk of a migration "emergency" only fuels "alarmist propaganda" and stokes peoples' fears.

"Those who risk their lives at sea do not invade, they look for welcome, for life" he said. "As for the emergency, the phenomenon of migration is not so much a short-term urgency, always good for fueling alarmist propaganda, but a reality of our times."

In addition to Macron, the pope's audience on Saturday included European Commission Vice President Margarítis Schinás, European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde and French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin, who has said France would not take in new migrants from Lampedusa.

The French president and first lady Brigitte Macron later attended Francis' final Mass at the Marseille Velodrome that drew an estimated 50,000 people and featured a giant banner of the pope hoisted up in the stands. The Vatican, citing local organizers, said 100,000 more lined Marseilles' central Avenue du Prado to cheer as his popemobile passed by.

In his remarks, Francis also repeated his opposition to euthanasia, which he has long decried as a symptom of a "throwaway culture" which treats the elderly and infirm as dispensable. Listing euthanasia as a "social evil," he criticized supporters of assisted suicide as providing "false pretenses of a supposedly dignified and 'sweet' death that is more 'salty' than the waters of the sea."

The issue is current in France, where Macron is expected in the coming weeks to unveil a bill that would legalize end-of-life options in France.

Information for this article was contributed by Nicolas Garriga, Helena Alves and Masha Macpherson of The Associated Press.

  photo  Pope Francis is welcomed by French President Emmanuel Macron as arrives at the final session of the "Rencontres Mediterraneennes" meeting at the Palais du Pharo, in Marseille, France, Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023. Francis, during a two-day visit, will join Catholic bishops from the Mediterranean region on discussions that will largely focus on migration. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)