Secular France sees red flag

Paris, France - Leading French left-wingers on Monday criticised the government of President Jacques Chirac for lowering flags on public buildings in memory of the late pope, arguing that it was a breach of the country's secular principles.

"For Christians to pay homage to the head of their church - that is part of their private lives. But when the head of state involves the whole of the population, whatever their religion, that is clearly an abuse of power," said Yves Contassot, a Green party member and deputy mayor of Paris.

Recalling that Chirac's centre-right government passed a law banning religious symbols in schools, Contassot said: "Today we have a government and a head of state who are trying to take political advantage of a private affair.

"I find this totally out of place, and when it comes to the flags, possibly illegal," he said.

Socialist deputy Jean-Luc Melenchon said: "This kind of thing is insidious. It can have all sorts of knock-on effects. The authorities should display total and unambiguous attention to the secular principle.

"Whether you want it or not, lowering the national symbol is a kind of favour done to a religion," he said.

Flags were put at half-mast in France for 24 hours following Pope John Paul II's death on Saturday. Officials said it was to honour a respected head of state and an important international figure, not the head of a religion.

"Thanks to his personality Pope John Paul II affected all men, secular and non-secular, and France owed it to itself to show its grief," said writer Max Gallo, defending the government's decision.