French President Hollande meets Pope Francis as sex scandal swirls

France's President Francois Hollande (left) meets with Pope Francis during a private audience on Jan 24, 2014, at the Vatican. -- PHOTO: AFP 
France's President Francois Hollande (left) meets with Pope Francis during a private audience on Jan 24, 2014, at the Vatican. -- PHOTO: AFP 

VATICAN CITY (AFP) - French President Francois Hollande met Pope Francis on Friday amid a swirling scandal over his love life and deep divisions in France over hot-button issues including abortion, euthanasia and gay marriage.

An embattled Mr Hollande shook hands with a glum-looking Pope at the start of the private audience, and a high-ranking prelate told AFP he expected that there would be "no holds barred" in their conversation.

The Vatican said in a statement after the talks that the two discussed "constructive cooperation for the common good", as well as issues including "family, bioethics and the respect of religious communities".

Mr Hollande said he and the Pope had the "same concern" about the status of Christian minorities in the Middle East and he hailed the pope's "radiant personality".

He also said he had asked the Pope for the Vatican to receive Syria's main opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, as the first talks between Syria's warring sides in Switzerland got off to a rough start.

"The Geneva II conference should be aimed at transition. We need to do everything to stop the fighting and dispatch humanitarian aid," Mr Hollande said.

Mr Hollande has previously said that the Pope, a "great moral authority", could help "find a political solution" to Syria's devastating civil war.

Security measures for Mr Hollande's visit were stepped up following the explosion just hours before of a small bomb packed with nails and lead pellets, which damaged cars and smashed windows near a French church in Rome.

"There has been no claim of responsibility," a police spokesman told AFP.

Residents in the area said they thought the blast may in fact be linked to a nearby nightclub that they said had mafia ties.

Police bomb disposal experts were called out again later on Friday after receiving an anonymous phone call about a bomb placed under the famous colonnade on St Peter's Square, which turned out to be a false alarm.