Pope Francis met with President Emmanuel Macron of France on Saturday on the second day of a whirlwind trip to Marseille, a port city in the country’s south where the pontiff issued a forceful condemnation of the world’s indifference toward the deaths of migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe.
Thousands of police officers blanketed the city early Saturday and blocked traffic around the Palais du Pharo, a 19th-century palace overlooking the city’s old port. Mr. Macron and Francis met there, even though the pope’s trip was not an official state visit.
Both are attending the closing session of the Mediterranean Meetings, a weeklong gathering of bishops and other representatives. Mr. Macron and the pope are to meet again one on one after the closing session and before a giant Mass later in the afternoon at Marseille’s soccer stadium.
The Rev. Vito Impellizzeri, a professor at the Pontifical Theological Faculty of Sicily, who attended the gathering, said the pope was coming to help shift perceptions of the Mediterranean.
“It should not simply be the tomb and clash of civilizations,” he said, but also “a space of reciprocity and encounters.”
Matteo Bruni, a Vatican spokesman, told reporters earlier this week that the pope would also discuss the war in Ukraine and environmental issues in Marseille.
But the pope has focused much of his trip so far on the plight of migrants attempting the dangerous Mediterranean crossing from North and sub-Saharan Africa to Europe. On Friday, at a memorial for sailors and migrants lost at sea that sits on a hill overlooking Marseille’s glittering harbor, he said the world was “at a crossroads of civilization,” caught between a culture of “fraternity” or one of “indifference.”
“This beautiful sea has become a huge cemetery, where many brothers and sisters are deprived even of the right to a grave,” Francis said. “Being buried at sea is the only dignity given to them.”
In a meeting that was closed to the press, the pope met privately early Saturday with people “in a situation of economic hardship” at a charity house in the center of Marseille, according to the Vatican.
Tens of thousands are expected to line the streets later in the day as Francis is driven to the Vélodrome, the soccer stadium in Marseille — where devotion to the local team is a faith of its own.
Cardinal Jean-Marc Aveline, the archbishop of Marseille, who helped orchestrate the pope’s trip, said in an interview with the daily Le Parisien this week that Francis had told him, “If I go to Paris, I will see protocol; in Marseille, I will see the people.”
“That’s why we chose the Vélodrome,” Cardinal Aveline said. “At the stadium, it’s like going into the home of each Marseillais.”
He added, “Marseille attracts him because it’s a periphery, between Europe and the Mediterranean, Orient and Occident, and in particular because it is a place of fracture.”
Francis has long preferred traveling to the world’s fringes rather than its power centers.
Marseille, a gritty, sprawling city of about 870,000, is plagued by pockets of extreme poverty, strained social services and deadly drug-related violence. But it is also one of France’s oldest and most cosmopolitan cities, a predominantly working-class patchwork of ethnic and religious communities that has been shaped by waves of immigration from Europe and Africa.
“It’s a city that suits the pope,” said Isabelle de Gaulmyn, a top editor at La Croix, France’s leading Catholic newspaper.
Elisabetta Povoledo contributed reporting from Rome.