French Officials Defend President Obama Amid Questions About Paris Rally Absence

(Photo: Reuters/Pascal Rossignol)President Obama and French President Francois Hollande participate in the 70th French-American Commemoration D-Day Ceremony at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer June 6, 2014.

French Officials defended President Barack Obama on Monday amid growing criticisms about his absence from an anti-terrorism rally in Paris on Sunday. The United States was represented by the Ambassador to France Jane Hartley.

World leaders from around the world joined an estimated 3.7 million people who marched in rallies across France yesterday (1.5 million in Paris), to promote peace and unity days after the Charlie Hebdo massacre.

Top White House officials, including the president himself, were noticeably absent from the unity march, which drew criticism, but on Monday senior French officials defended Obama to veteran CNN journalist Christiane Amanpour.

"President Obama was "very present" from the start, Senior Official in President Hollande's office tells me. #CharlieHebdo," Amanpour tweeted to her 1 million followers early Monday.

(Photo: Reuters/Philippe Wojazer)Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L), Mali's President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (2ndL), French President Francois Hollande (C), Germany's Chancellor Angela Merke (4thL), European Council President Donald Tusk (5thL) and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas attend the solidarity march (Marche Republicaine) in the streets of Paris January 11, 2015. French citizens will be joined by dozens of foreign leaders, among them Arab and Muslim representatives, in a march on Sunday in an unprecedented tribute to this week's victims following the shootings by gunmen at the offices of the satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo, the killing of a police woman in Montrouge, and the hostage taking at a kosher supermarket at the Porte de Vincennes.
(Photo: Reuters/Charles Platiau)People hold panels to create the eyes of late Charlie Hebdo editor Stephane Charbonnier, known as "Charb", as hundreds of thousands of French citizens take part in a solidarity march (Marche Republicaine) in the streets of Paris January 11, 2015. French citizens will be joined by dozens of foreign leaders, among them Arab and Muslim representatives, in a march on Sunday in an unprecedented tribute to this week's victims following the shootings by gunmen at the offices of the satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo, the killing of a police woman in Montrouge, and the hostage taking at a kosher supermarket at the Porte de Vincennes.
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On Jan 7 three jihadists, reportedly armed with a Kalashnikov and a rocket-launcher, stormed the offices of satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo killing 12 people, including the editor Stephane "Charb" Charbonnier, staff cartoonists and a police officer.

Obama wasted no time condemning the attack, which marked the worst terrorist attack France has seen in the last decade, by calling it "an attack on our free press." According to Amanpour, French President Francois Hollande expressed "deep appreciation" for the president's support.

Obama is also said to have personally called Hollande to offer condolences.

"Senior official in Pres Hollande's office expresses deep appreciation for Pres Obama's strong statement & actions ever since the attacks. President Obama was one of the first leaders to call President Hollande on Wednesday, Senior Official in Hollande's office tells me," Amanpour wrote in a series of tweets.

The following day, a solemn-looking Obama paid a visit to the French Embassy in Washington to showcase support for French allies. He again condemned the Paris shooting and signed a condolence book.

"As allies across the centuries, we stand united with our French brothers to ensure that justice is done and our way of life is defended," Obama wrote. "We go forward together knowing that terror is no match for freedom and ideals we stand for — ideals that light the world … Vive la France!"

Senior French officials acknowledged the Embassy visit and called it "an emotional moment of solidarity," according to Amanpour.

World leaders present at yesterday's rally at Paris' Place de la Republique included Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Mali's President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel, EU President Donald Tusk, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas among others. Each of them marched arm-in-arm alongside Hollande to showcase support in the wake of France's horrific ordeal.

Obama, Vice President Joseph R. Biden and Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who has deep ties to France, did not attend and while an official explanation has not been made public, some critics have attributed their absence to security risks and logistics.

USA Today's Ray Locker said that it is common for presidents to avoid public gatherings of such a large magnitude because it is difficult to properly execute the standard security routines.

It should be noted that Kerry attended an entrepreneurship summit with new Prime Minister Narendra Modi in India last week.

Attorney General Eric Holder was in Paris attending a security summit on combating terrorism, but he too did not attend the rally.

"As far as public signs of French solidarity from the U.S. -- don't forget several public statements from the president, his call to [French President Francois] Hollande and a condolence stop to the French embassy," an administration official told CNN, with a White House official adding "It is worth noting that the security requirements for both the president and (vice president) can be distracting from events like this. For once this event is not about us!"