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France Prepares for Visit by Pope Benedict

Pope Benedict XVI arrives Friday in Paris on a four-day trip that will also include a visit to the southwestern French town of Lourdes. From the French capital, Lisa Bryant reports for VOA.

Pope Benedict will deliver a key address in Paris and meet with French President Nicolas Sarkozy before heading to Lourdes, which is celebrating the 150th anniversary of the apparition of the Virgin Mary to a shepherd girl.

This is Benedict's first visit to France as pontiff, and he follows his far more charismatic predecessor John Paul II, who visited Lourdes twice.

In a video released on the Internet by the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Benedict addressed his greetings to the French before his arrival and said he was sending a message of peace and fraternity to France.

Bishop Antoine Herouard, general secretary of the French council of bishops, said he hoped the pope would shore up the convictions of Catholics here. "What we are expecting is first for him to give some help and boost to the faith of Catholic people here in France and let them be stronger in their faith and hope, and to be able to give their own testimony of faith and Christian life," he said.

While the majority of French are born into Roman Catholic families, only about 50 percent of French consider themselves Catholic - and only about a quarter of them are observant, public-opinion surveys show.

But 53 percent of French had positive views of the pope's visit, according to a survey published in Le Parisien newspaper. Among Catholics 65 percent responded positively.

In interviews in busy downtown Paris, many French said they were uninterested in the pope's visit. That includes 19-year-old restaurant worker, Gael Michel. He said he was completely indifferent to Pope Benedict's passage in France. He is just a person, Michel said, like everyone else.

Same answer from Amelie Jadot, visiting Paris from her native Brittany. Although she comes from a Catholic family, she says she does not believe in religion. She thinks Pope Benedict's visit is primarily for political ends - not religious ones.

An associate director at the IFOP polling agency in Paris, Jerome Fourquet, said the de-Christianization of France is reflected elsewhere in Europe.

Fourquet said the fall in belief and observance here has been especially steep since the 1960s, and even Pope John Paul II was not able to reverse the decline. He says France also has a tradition of sharply separating church and state.

But Fourquet said, the Catholic church is trying to tap into new trends, with its world youth days and by stressing pilgrimages - such as that to Lourdes - which remain very popular in Europe.

The pope may get an unexpected boost from President Sarkozy, a lapsed Catholic who is twice divorced. During a visit to the Vatican last year, Mr. Sarkozy said that upholding France's Christian roots did not contradict its secular creed.