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After attack, France needs solidarity from U.S., not Beltway politics

Murders of Charlie Hebdo cartoonists are an assault on French dedication to free speech

Republicans never miss a beat finding some new pretext for slamming President Obama. This week, he gave them an easy shot by failing to attend Sunday’s huge rally in Paris that attracted 1.5 million people, including a number of international leaders.

The gathering was a defiant affirmation of free speech after the murder of several French cartoonists in last week’s attack by Islamic terrorists at the office of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was there. British Prime Minister David Cameron was there. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was there. But not the president of the United States.

The White House responded to the criticism by noting how it is nearly impossible in this age of menace to make the necessary security arrangements for a traveling president on such short notice. But the president’s men also admitted they goofed up royally by not having the country represented by the vice president or some other official of higher rank than the U.S. ambassador.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry would have been a perfect person to send to the Paris rally, given the eloquence of the remarks he delivered to the French people in their own language after the attack. Unfortunately, Kerry stayed put in India. It must be said, though, it is ironic the Republicans are claiming to be so concerned about French sensitivities. These are the same folks who mocked Kerry for his French language skills and affinity for French wine when he ran for president in 2004 and who have slammed President Obama for being “too European” in his governing philosophy.

It was not that long ago that Republicans were insisting on being served “freedom fries” instead of French fries in the Senate and House dining rooms after France refused to join the ill-fated American invasion of Iraq in 2003. In those days, before Americans soured on the trumped-up Iraq adventure, the conservative view of France was summed up by a phrase first coined in an early episode of “The Simpsons.” The French, the saying went, were “cheese-eating surrender monkeys.”

For their part, the French looked at the inarticulate, squinty-eyed, swaggering Texan in the White House and had all their biases against Americans confirmed. From the earliest days of the relationship between the two nations, many of the French elite have considered Americans to be crude, unsophisticated and a bit barbaric. George W. Bush was the living proof.

These antagonisms are enduring and immensely petty, given the history that the French and Americans share. France played a pivotal role in helping the United States become an independent nation. The U.S. returned the favor by twice saving France from German aggression in the world wars. America’s most revered icon, the Statue of Liberty, was a gift from the French people. This goddess of freedom that is so important to us is essentially a sister to Marianne, the symbol of liberty and reason that is the personification of the French nation.

As Americans were ratifying their constitution in 1789, the French Revolution had just begun. The road to liberty, equality and fraternity in France was a long one. The French people repeatedly rebelled against new authoritarian governments and recreated their republic several times before they got it close to right. Through that lengthy process, France became a beacon of freedom as bright as the torch in the hand of the big lady in New York harbor.

Liberty is as precious to the French as it is to any American, Republican or Democrat. Some American conservatives scoff at the intellectual and philosophical tradition that matters so much to the French, but it is that tradition that makes the French passion for freedom of thought and speech especially intense. The right of a caustic cartoonist to say whatever he believes truly matters to them.

The despicable attack on Charlie Hebdo makes clear that France is on the front line in the battle against the closed-minded, violent fanatics of extremist Islam who would stamp out any thought, word or image that varies from their oppressive ideology. The French prime minister, Manuel Valls, is openly calling it a war. “It is a war against terrorism, against jihadism, against radical Islam, against everything that is aimed at breaking fraternity, freedom, solidarity,” he said.

Solidarity is what France needs now from the United States. It is too bad Obama could not get to Paris. It is a national embarrassment his administration did not send someone notable to stand in for him. But, at this important hour, sniping from Republicans just adds to the impression that politicians here can focus on nothing but partisan games. From the White House to Congress, our leaders need to raise their sights beyond the Beltway.

This is a serious moment; a time to forge a united front with our oldest ally in a new defense of liberty.

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