The Embarrassing No-Show In Paris

John Lichfield of The Independent offers a stirring impression of yesterday’s commemorations in France:

They came in their hundreds of thousands: the old and the young, the white, the brown and the black; the left and the right. There were old men in berets; young black people in baseball hats; Jewish people in yarmulkes; Muslims in headscarves. At least 1.5 million people were estimated to have marched – or in many cases failed to march because the crowds were too densely packed – in the centre of Paris today. They marched “for the Republic”, “against hatred” and “for history”.

Another two million marched in more than 60 similar demonstrations in towns and cities across the country. They marched to say “I am Charlie” but also “I am Jewish” and “I am a policeman” after three days of terrorist mayhem starting with the massacre at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo last Wednesday.

Even more remarkable was the presence of world leaders who often are at each others’ throats:

Who would have thought that the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, would walk through Paris four places away from Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority? Who would have imagined the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, would take part in a street demonstration in the French capital (probably the first time that Cameron has demonstrated in his life)?

So why was the highest-ranking U.S. representative the one person for whom it was a routine part of her day job, U.S. ambassador Jane Hartley (yes, Eric Holder was in Paris, but for pre-scheduled discussions with French security officials; he did not attend the march)?

President Obama’s absence was understandable; security concerns alone might have made him an inappropriate center of attention in Paris. But isn’t this precisely the kind of event for which we have vice presidents? And where was our French-speaking Secretary of State? Turns out he was en route to India for an “entrepreneurship summit;” I do believe his absence at that would have been understood.

Yes, of course, conservatives are already leaping on this mistake by the Obama administration as they do on everything this president does, with some idiotically implying it reflects sympathy for or fear of the murderers. From all available accounts, it was just a screw-up, but a pretty highly visible one that cannot be undone (Kerry is now headed to France later this week). Maybe there’s an explanation that somehow has not be sufficiently broadcast, and it matters little in the long run. But it was still embarrassing.

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.