PARIS (AFP) — Facing a freefall in the number of churchgoers despite its deep Christian heritage, France is set to welcome Pope Benedict XVI on his first visit to bond with the Catholic church's "eldest daughter."
The German pope arrives in Paris on Friday for talks with President Nicolas Sarkozy and to deliver a keynote address before flying to the southwest town of Lourdes, one of the world's most visited Catholic sites.
France is home to an estimated 35 million baptised Catholics, although polls show the French have lost much of their sense of belonging to the church over recent decades.
While Catholicism remains by far the country's number one religion, 51 percent of the French consider themselves Catholic, down from 80 percent in the early 1990s, according to a survey published last year.
Of those, only 10 percent attend mass regularly, the survey in Le Monde des Religions magazine showed.
Known as the Catholic church's "eldest daughter" since Frankish king Clovis converted in the fifth century, France is shaping up as a testing ground for the Catholic church's revival in Europe.
"Statistically, the church is in the red," commented Michel Kubler, the editor in chief for religious issues for the Catholic newspaper La Croix.
"All the indicators are down, from church attendance to baptisms to the number of priests."
France last year overtook Ireland as Europe's fertility champion, with women giving birth on average to two children, but a majority of babies are now being born out of wedlock.
Church weddings are losing favour among the French, with priests officiating some 89,000 ceremonies in 2006, compared to 147,000 in 1990, according to church statistics.
But what French Catholics have lost in numbers, they appear to be making up in enthusiasm, according to Kubler, who said followers nowadays feel less bound by tradition and more anchored in faith.
"French Catholics are a lot less passive. There are signs of a significant renewal," he said.
The Catholic church has been vocal on immigration, the rights of undocumented workers, euthanasia and bioethics -- all of which are hot-button issues in France.
Home to large Muslim and Jewish communities, France is also a staunch defender of secularism under a keystone 1905 law that enshrines the separation of state and church.
But Sarkozy, a twice-divorced lapsed Catholic, broke a taboo when he declared during his Vatican visit in December that upholding France's Christian roots was not in contradiction with secularism.
Benedict's visit to France will be closely watched for any pronouncements on the role that French Catholics should play in the country's drive to reform and as it grapples with secularism.
French cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran said the papal visit would be an opportunity to "set the record straight" on secularism, with the church seeking to ease the hardline view that religion has no place in public life.
"The state today must take into account that despite advances in secularism, many citizens have a spiritual life that resonates in social life," said Vatican state secretary Tarcisio Bertone this week.
"It is neither fair nor productive to build the common good without any consideration for what is, from the point of view of common sense, a reality in society."
The pope's four-day visit to France will be his 10th foreign trip since his election in 2005 following the death of John Paul II, who twice visited Lourdes, a town of 15,000 people in the foothills of the Pyrenees near the Spanish border.
In Lourdes, Benedict will commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Vatican-recognized apparitions of the Virgin Mary to peasant girl Bernadette Soubirous.
More than 200,000 people are expected to descend on the town where Benedict will take part in a torchlight procession to the grotto where Bernadette is said to have seen Mary 18 times over a period of a few months in 1858.
The pope wraps up his trip Monday with a mass for the sick in Lourdes that the Vatican has portrayed as an opportunity for Benedict to shed his reputation as a cold theologian and show his compassionate side.
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