After missing major rally, US sends top diplomat to France

AFP , Thursday 15 Jan 2015

Charlie Hebdo
A woman holds a placard with the message, "I am Charlie" as people gather to pay tribute to late satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo cartoonist Bernard Verlhac, known as Tignous, at the Montreuil town hall, near Paris, January 15, 2015 (Photo: Reuters)

US Secretary of State John Kerry arrives in Paris Thursday to pay tribute to victims of last week's jihadist attacks, after a furore over the absence of a senior US official at a mass rally in the wake of the shootings.

Kerry's visit comes after the White House was forced to admit it had made a mistake in not sending a higher-ranking representative to the mammoth march against terrorism attended by dozens of world leaders on Sunday.

The United States was conspicuous by its absence as images of the leaders of France, Britain, Germany, Israel, the Palestinian territories, and others linking arms at the head of the procession were beamed around the globe.

"Maybe they said to themselves there was no big march after September, 11 2001 and that their presence in Paris wasn't necessary?" French President Francois Hollande said in an interview with Le Parisien newspaper published Wednesday.

About 1.5 million people crammed the streets of the capital on Sunday after a week of terror that started with the murder of 12 people at satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and ended in a deadly hostage drama at a Jewish supermarket.

Washington was represented at the event by the US ambassador to France, Jane Hartley.

Famous francophile Kerry has defended his absence at the side of America's "oldest ally" due to prior engagements, while the White House said organising security for President Barack Obama at such short notice was too complicated.

"I would have personally very much wanted to have been there," Kerry said on a visit to India on Monday.

"But that is why I am going there on the way home, to make it crystal clear how passionately we feel about the events that have taken place there."

Kerry, who has been to Paris 15 times since becoming secretary of state, addressed the nation in French shortly after the attacks "to tell them that all Americans stand by their side".

Both he and Obama signed a book of condolences at the French embassy in Washington amid an outpouring of compassion in an America scarred by its own terror attacks.

"My visit to France is basically to share a big hug for Paris and express our affection for France... and the people in Paris who have gone through a terrible time," Kerry said in Bulgaria.

On Friday, Kerry will meet French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and Hollande to show his country's solidarity with France.

France is America's oldest ally, with the transatlantic partners having established diplomatic ties in 1776.

But relations have often been strained, notably in recent years by deep divisions over the invasion of Iraq in 2003 which France staunchly opposed.

France was also put in an awkward position in 2013 when the United States at the last minute pulled out of plans to take military action against Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad after a chemical weapons attack.

Paris had been ready to join the intervention, but did not want to act on its own.

Hollande again on Thursday criticised the sluggishness in responding to the conflict.

"That is why you now have this horrible situation where a regime continues to punish its population and a terrorist group has set itself up as the opposition," he said.

And when France intervened in Mali in January 2013 to chase out Islamists who had seized the north of the country, the US initially supported the mission before saying it could only continue to do so if France footed the bill.

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