Obama’s Absence From France Unity Rally Was a Massive PR Failure

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UPDATE: Press Secretary Admits that Administration should have sent higher ranking official to rally.

Less than a week after the attack at magazine Charlie Hebdo, France is still dealing with the aftermath, but Paris has showed that its people are nothing if not resilient. As an act of memorial for the slain Charlie Hebdo staff, as well as the hostages killed at a Kosher market in Paris on Friday, there was a gigantic march in the city yesterday. The rally also served as a show of unity against terrorism. It was a huge, notable world event with a ton of support from around the world. But where was the United States?

It’s estimated that about 1.6 million people took part. To us Americans, that doesn’t sound like that much, but you have to remember that France is roughly one-fifth of the size of the United States. So, comparably, that would mean around 8 million people marching here. That’s massive, and incredibly moving.

It wasn’t just Paris either. Marches took place around the world. In the French city of Lyon, roughly one-fourth of the population marched.

Of course, not everyone involved in the march was French either. Other word leaders, including British Prime Minister David Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, EU President Donald Tusk, and Jordan’s King Abdullah II, came as well.

But there was one thing notably missing from the rally: the presence of a high profile official from the United States.

There was no President Barack Obama. No Vice President Joe Biden. No Secretary of State John Kerry. The U.S. was represented by Jane Hartley, the American Ambassador to France, and Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland. No offense to Ambassador Hartley or Assistant Secretary of State Nuland, but they’re both a noticeable pay grade below the 40-plus heads of state who attended. Merkel and Cameron are two of the most prominent figures in the Western world. For god’s sake, the respective leaders of Israel and Palestine both showed up in a mini-act of solidarity in their own right, despite reports that they were asked not to. But the United States sent mostly unrecognizable figures, one of whom who was probably there anyway.

If you’re looking for a truly insipid study into the way that conspiracy theorists’ minds work, a look at the hashtag #ReasonsObamaMissedFranceRally might be in order. Theories range from Obama secretly being racist to Obama being Muslim (seriously, we’re still on that?). These are stupid theories.

But the hashtag does get one teeny, tiny thing right. The absence was not only noticeable, it was incredibly embarrassing. The White House is scrambling to come up with reasons why Obama didn’t attend, including citing his participation in a few interviews yesterday, and mentioning concerns that the security at the event would be difficult to manage. Obama has put out statements showing his support for France, but his absence from the event still looks pretty bad. Now there’s news that Secretary of State Kerry will be visiting France this week, possibly in an attempt to placate critics.

Honestly, I highly doubt there was some weird alternative motive here, but mostly just an incredibly bad PR move. Maybe the White House thought that Americans are self-absorbed enough to not really care what was happening in Paris. Or maybe Obama didn’t want to take such an overtly political stance. Or maybe Obama didn’t attend out of fear of drawing attention from ISIS, which still holds some Western hostages like John Cantlie, after all.

I honestly don’t know what it was that motivated not only President Obama to skip the rally, but also not to send a high profile emissary in his place. Sure, he’s made some heartening statements in support of France in the last few days, but he should know by now that actions speak louder than words. His actions yesterday signaled a massive underestimation of the power of solidarity, and a complete lack of foresight.

UPDATE: Press Secretary Admits that Administration should have sent higher ranking official to rally.: The White House clarified Obama’s absence from the rally on Sunday during a press conference this afternoon. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest admitted, “I think it’s fair to say that we should have sent someone with a higher profile to be there.” He also cited security concerns as the reason that Obama himself didn’t attend.

Anneliese Mahoney
Anneliese Mahoney is Managing Editor at Law Street and a Connecticut transplant to Washington D.C. She has a Bachelor’s degree in International Affairs from the George Washington University, and a passion for law, politics, and social issues. Contact Anneliese at



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