French President Nicolas Sarkozy met with Pope Benedict XVI on Thursday and said he was "personally moved" by his first audience with the pontiff.

The two men discussed a range of international issues, including "the drama of hostages," an apparent reference to France's efforts to free Ingrid Betancourt, who is being held by Colombian guerrillas, the Vatican said.

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Betancourt is a dual French-Colombian citizen and former Colombian presidential candidate. She has been held for nearly six years and France has been actively seeking her release.

The Vatican described the visit as cordial and noted what it called good relations between the French government and the Roman Catholic Church.

Sarkozy, in 25 minutes of private talks with the pope and in a meeting with the secretary of state of the Holy See, discussed themes of common interest and the role of religion, "in particular the Catholic Church," in the world, the Vatican said.

Before the visit, Sarkozy spokesman David Martinon described the Vatican as "extremely active and influential" in diplomacy. "It's a partner that counts, and it's a heavyweight ally on a great number of subjects," such as on Lebanon and the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, Martinon said.

Benedict greeted Sarkozy outside his study and two men posed for photographers before taking their seats at a desk for their talks.

"Where did you learn your French?" Sarkozy was heard to ask the German pope in the televised preliminaries. "In school," Benedict replied.

Sarkozy presented the pope with three books, including one he had written before becoming president on the role of religion in secular France.

After the talks, Sarkozy said on television that he was "personally moved" by the meeting.

In the evening, the president was to dine with Italian Premier Romano Prodi and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero to talk about his idea for a union of Mediterranean countries, Martinon said.