US no-show at Paris unity march sparks criticism

François Hollande (centre) walks at the head of Sunday's unity march in Paris flanked by Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (left) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel (right).
François Hollande (centre) walks at the head of Sunday's unity march in Paris flanked by Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (left) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel (right). Pierre René-Worms / RFI

The United Sates government has come under fire for failing to send a senior official to join dozens of world leaders at Sunday’s unity march in Paris after last week's terrorist attacks, with the White House conceding Monday that it made a mistake.


“I think it’s fair to say that we should have sent someone with a higher profile to be there,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters Monday, adding that President Barack Obama would have liked to have attended.

“That said, there is no doubt that the American people and this administration stand foursquare behind our allies in France as they face down this threat.”

US administration officials cited security requirements as a central reason why neither Obama nor Vice President Joe Biden made the trip, saying their security needs can be distracting from such events.

French President François Hollande was joined by more than 50 heads of state and top envoys, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, at the march, held to show solidarity after Islamist militants killed 17 people in three days of attacks in the French capital last week.

But the most senior US official to take part in the rally, which saw around 1.5 million people pour onto the streets of Paris, was the country’s ambassador to France, Jane Hartley – a fact that has been met with incredulity among many Republicans and some parts of the US media.

‘You let the world down’

On Monday, the The New York Daily News front page featured a photo of the packed rally along with head shots of Obama, Biden, Kerry and Holder and the admonition: “You let the world down”.

“The absence is symbolic of the lack of American leadership on the world stage, and it is dangerous,” Republican Senator Ted Cruz wrote in an opinion piece on the Time magazine website.

“Our president should have been there, because we must never hesitate to stand with our allies,” he wrote.

“I thought it was a mistake not to send someone,” another Republican senator, Marco Rubio, said on CBS “This Morning.”

CNN journalist Jake Tapper, one of the television news channel's main anchors covering the attacks in Paris, spoke of his "shame" at the lack of high-ranking US representation.

"I say this as an American – not as a journalist, not as a representative of CNN – but as an American: I was ashamed," Tapper wrote in a blog on CNN's website.

Adding to the sense of dismay among some American pundits and lawmakers, US Attorney General Eric Holder had been in Paris for a meeting on terrorism, but even he did not join the rally.

Earnest said it was the White House’s responsibility to ask high officials to attend such events and said blame did not belong with Holder or others in the administration.

A spokesman for Holder said he had to return to the United States on Sunday afternoon but “was proud to join the world leaders gathered in Paris at a summit convened by President Hollande before the unity rally.”

France ‘moved’ by US reactions

Criticism of the American absence was not echoed in France, however.

“As far as the reactions of the US authorities are concerned, we have been overwhelmed and very moved by them since the beginning of the crisis,” the French Embassy in Washington said on Monday.

While the US did not send any high-ranking officials to the march, Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday he would travel to Paris after wrapping up his tour of South Asia.

US officials pointed out that Kerry was on a longstanding trip to India that made it impossible to attend on Sunday.

Marie Elizabeth Harf, the deputy spokesperson for the US Department of State, tweeted: “@JohnKerry traveling to Paris Thurs; reminds people relationship w/France not about 1 day or 1 particular moment but an ongoing friendship.”


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