Small blast in Rome as France's Hollande meets pope

Small blast in Rome as France's Hollande meets pope

VATICAN CITY - Pope Francis prepared Friday to meet France's President Francois Hollande, who is under pressure after revelations of an affair but hoping to woo back Catholic voters, as a small bomb blast near a French church in Rome diverted attention from the visit.

The night-time explosion damaged a few cars and smashed windows on a small street where the church of Saint-Yves-des-Bretons is located, raising the possibility that it could be linked to Hollande's visit.

"A handmade bomb went off at 2:30 am (0130 GMT).... There has been no claim of responsibility. Our investigation is ongoing," a police spokesman told AFP.

The French embassy to the Vatican declined to comment.

Abortion and euthanasia are among the hot-button issues on the table at Hollande's first meeting with Francis, who has largely avoided public diatribes on doctrine.

Vatican watchers say Francis is likely to press the Socialist leader on these issues in private.

"They will certainly not play hide-and-seek. There will be no holds barred," a high-ranking prelate told AFP on condition of anonymity.

Hollande, 59, is plagued by low popularity and hopes to reconcile with a Catholic electorate largely hostile to his policies.

He sees the visit as a chance to send "a strong message of dialogue and attention to the Catholics", an advisor said at a briefing ahead of the trip.

He may also be hoping some of the pontiff's popularity rubs off on him.

His quest will be made no easier by lawmakers' decision this week to greenlight a change in the country's abortion laws, effectively making it easier for a woman to terminate a pregnancy.

Anger among staunch Catholics has also been fuelled by plans for the legalisation of assisted suicide - with French bishops speaking out this week to condemn a topic Hollande promised to support in his electoral campaign.

Relations between part of the electorate and the government soured notably last year when France legalised gay weddings, despite hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets to hold huge protests.

Some 110,000 frustrated Catholics have signed a petition calling on the congenial Francis to get tough and raise their concerns with Hollande.

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