Pope Salutes Youth In Skeptical France

PARIS -- Pope John Paul, saying he was on a "grand journey" to revive religion among young people, on Thursday began a four-day visit to France tinged by controversy over abortion.

Thousands lined the Pope's route into Paris, with some cheering as the tired-looking 77-year-old pontiff was driven past standing in his bullet-proof "Popemobile" from Orly airport.

The Pope is presiding over the 12th World Youth Days, rallying more than 300,000 young people, in a bid to revive Roman Catholic fervor among young people increasingly uninterested in religion.

"My coming to Paris marks a new step in a kind of grand journey which I have made with young people across the world in the past 12 years in an ever-renewed exchange with them," the pontiff told French President Jacques Chirac.

Calling the festival a "vast gathering of hope," he said the young faced a difficult search for physical and spiritual well-being in a world scarred by violence, unemployment and poverty.

Chirac, greeting the Pope for the second time in a year after a visit to France last September, praised the pontiff for his closeness to young people.

"Today's youth is conscious and responsible. For many of them, who are waiting for answers, you are a guide and a reference," said Chirac, a Roman Catholic church-goer, during their meeting at the Elysee presidential palace.

But opinion polls showed French people believed the Pope was out of touch with the young.

A survey for the weekly L'Evenement du Jeudi said 59 percent of 1,000 people quizzed by the IFOP institute rated the Pope "conservative" or "retrograde."

A CSA poll for the Catholic daily La Croix found that 65 percent of French young people said religion had little or no importance in their lives.

The Pope's 79th trip abroad will culminate in a vast open air mass at the Longchamp racetrack where organizers expect half a million faithful.

Although only one small protest is expected, the Pope has stirred criticism for a plan to pray on Friday at the grave of his friend Jerome Lejeune, a genetics professor who is a hero to anti-abortion groups.

Only close relatives of Lejeune, who died in 1994, will accompany the pontiff to his grave at Chalo-Saint-Mars south of Paris on Friday afternoon.

But family planning groups and some leftist politicians have described the visit, however discreet, as an encouragement to increasingly militant anti-abortion groups and a challenge to the French parliament, which legalized abortion two decades ago.