FRENCH president Emmanuel Macron has been accused of a “contradictory” and “exceptional act” after he attended a mass celebrated by Pope Francis in the south of France yesterday, amid criticism of going against France’s secular values.

While the Pope was visiting Marseille, President Macron broke with 43 years of tradition by attending a papal service – something no French head of state had done since May 1980.

This decision was strongly criticised and discouraged by the left wing, who invoked France’s 1905 law on the separation of church and state (laïcité), which guarantees the president’s neutrality to all religions while in office.

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Speaking ahead of the event, Macron said: “I consider that it’s my place to be there, I won’t be there as a Catholic but as president of the French Republic, which is indeed secular.

“I myself will not practice any religious act during this mass.”

The head of state did not make the sign of the cross or receive communion.

The mass attended by Macron was part of the Pope’s visit to the Mediterranean Meetings, which brought together bishops and young people from all around the region to discuss challenges they are facing such as the migrant death toll.

It drew thousands of people of all faiths to the Orange Vélodrome Stadium.

For Valentine Zuber, a historian specialising in the history of religious freedom and secularism in France, the president’s presence was “usual diplomacy” for a foreign head of state.

She said: “Many presidents in the past have attended religious ceremonies, not just Catholic ones, without joining in the ritual, so this is more courtesy than diplomacy.

“I don’t think that secularism has been infringed, but I understand that some people’s sensibilities may have been offended by the president’s decision.”

However, Lucien Jaume, a philosopher and expert in political science and religion, found Macron’s decision rather “incongruous”.

“It seems to me that the president of the Republic can only attend a mass in exceptional and important circumstances, however, Macron failed to say what justified his presence,” he explained.

“The Pope did say that he wasn’t coming as a head of state, so it’s a bit strange, that Macron performed a rather exceptional act.

“He could have received the Pope in Marseille outside this mass to not confuse the head of state of the Vatican with the head of the church – I find Macron’s approach incongruous.”

Earlier this September, Macron’s government decided to ban the wearing of the abaya – a traditional robe-like dress usually worn by Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa – in public schools in the name of secularism.

For critics, Macron’s attendance at the mass showed the double standards applied to the two religions.

The National:  A group gathered in front of the French Embassy protests against the ban on abaya A group gathered in front of the French Embassy protests against the ban on abaya (Image: Getty Images)

Vincent Brengarth, lawyer for the association Actions Droits des Musulmans, said: “It seems to me somewhat contradictory, when you want to set an example on issues of secularism and the neutrality of the state, I think it’s not inappropriate to take part in a mass because it sends out an incoherent message to the Muslim population who feel like they are not treated with the same degree of neutrality.”

Brengarth and Actions Droits des Musulmans appealed to suspend the ban on the abaya.

He said: “What was striking is the brutality of the treatment, no discussion or dialogue was held, it was very unilateral and sudden.”

As of today, the French government has still not provided a clear description of what is considered an abaya.

Brengarth continued: “I don’t think that if Ms Smith wore an abaya it would be considered religious in nature, so it shows that to assess religious character, we consider something other than the wearing of the item of clothing which is discriminatory and a presumption on belonging to the Muslim faith.”

Alain Gabon, professor of French studies at Virginia Wesleyan University, agrees that clothing can’t be religious by nature.

He said: “Many schoolgirls do wear those – not for a religious reason but as fashion or because it’s convenient or fast and easy to put on.

“The government has lumped all those girls together and somehow decided just like that they were all wearing it [because of] Islamic faith, which is ridiculous when you know those girls [as] many are not even religious at all.”

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When asked about the treatment of Muslims by the state, he added: “The government needs to start applying laïcité to Muslims too, meaning giving them full freedom of religion like for the others as well as equality of treatment of Islam as that is what laïcité and the 1905 law is about, and they need to stop violating it by weaponising it into a tool to limit, attack, control, shape and ‘reform’.

“In the future, in the best-case scenario, the treatment of the French state towards Islam will be the same – or it will get worse.”