PARIS — On his 19th trip as secretary of state to a city that has always brought him joy, John F. Kerry came to Paris on Friday in sorrow.
Throughout the day, he was following the rituals of mourning as he moved through the city, where seemingly every news kiosk is plastered with the cover of Charlie Hebdo showing a drawing of the prophet Muhammad crying.
Kerry’s motorcade sped through the predawn streets to the Quai d’Orsay, where he offered condolences to Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius. Kerry also explained why he did not fly to Paris on Sunday for a unity march after 17 people were slain in a series of attacks that began with the storming of the satirical newspaper and ended with a hostage-taking at a kosher grocery.
Appearing before reporters as they prepared to meet, Kerry told Fabius that he was in India at the time and “that’s why I couldn’t come.”
Critics of the Obama administration consider Kerry’s visit an attempt to atone for not sending a more prominent envoy to join last Sunday’s march led by some 40 world leaders. By most accounts, however, the perceived snub is an internal American flap. The French are taking the absence of Americans with aplomb.
But for Kerry, the trip is not solely an official visit on behalf of all Americans. It’s also a deeply personal expression of sympathy.
Kerry is rooted in France.
His mother grew up on an estate called Les Essarts in the Breton village of Saint-Briac-sur-Mer. It was destroyed by the Nazis as she escaped to Portugal and eventually reached the United States. After the war, Les Essarts was rebuilt as a chateau, where Kerry spent summers as a boy. It is still owned by the family, and he visited it once while secretary after the 70th anniversary commemoration of the Normandy invasion.
Kerry has cousins who have been active in local and national politics. And he speaks passable French with them, though with a strong American accent. He learned French while attending boarding school in Switzerland while his father, a career diplomat, was stationed in Berlin.
Kerry dusted off his French shortly after this month’s attack in Paris. He came out within hours of the slaughter, the first American official to do so, and addressed the French in the language of Molière to tell them the darkness will be beaten back. He planned to speak French at every public event Friday.
During his tour, Kerry and Fabius went to the grocery, where a makeshift shrine of flowers and votive candles has grown at the foot of police barricades.
Kerry placed a large, leafy wreath, made up of red roses and carnations and white lilies, on a tripod in front of the store. In gold letters on a white sash bisecting the middle were the words “United States of America.” He then stood to the side speaking softly with Joel Mergul, head of France’s Rabbinical Council.
Kerry laid an identical wreath outside the offices of Charlie Hebdo. His voice was tinged with sadness as François Vauglin, mayor of the city’s 11th arrondissement, walked him around the site. They stood for a moment reading sympathy notes taped to the building. Kerry hugged Vauglin before bidding him goodbye.
Then Kerry walked a block to the street median where a police officer was fatally shot by the fleeing attackers. There, Kerry set a bowl of red and white flowers beside a growing pile of floral tributes.
Kerry’s next stop was the Elysée Palace to pay his respects to President François Hollande. Later, at the palatial City Hall, signs pointed in the direction of the “Hommage de John Kerry à Paris” in the lavish Salon des Arcades, dripping with chandeliers, gilt trim and murals of women bathing.
“What was intended to tear us apart has brought us together,” he told a crowd of about 300 people, speaking in French and English. “That is what extremists fear most. But make no mistake. Extremists and thugs and terrorists do not understand, and can never understand, that brave and decent people will never give in to intimidation and terror.”
Then Kerry introduced singer James Taylor, a personal friend, who sat on a stool playing his acoustic guitar.
Taylor, who has concerts planned in France and Germany this spring, started with a short riff on the French national anthem, “La Marseillaise.” Then he flowed into “You’ve Got a Friend” as the mayor, Anne Hidalgo, held the microphone to his mouth.
The somber tone of Kerry’s visit is in stark contrast to how he usually acts in Paris.
The City of Light typically brings a bounce to the step of the 71-year-old diplomat. He often shuns his motorcade and wanders through the city’s streets with his security detail. He strolls through the Tuileries.
On one recent visit, he decided to walk to the Quai d’Orsay — roughly a mile from his hotel — hoofing it over a bridge across the Seine. He goes to dinners in bistros, dining with friends or his stepson, Andre Heinz, the son of his wife, Teresa.
But there are no moments of bons temps on this trip.
He hugged Hollande in the courtyard of the Elysée Palace.
“I think you know that you have the full and heartfelt condolences of the American people, and I know that you know we share the pain and the horror of everything that you went through,” Kerry told him in French.
“Our hearts are with you.”
When the homage to Paris ended, Kerry did his own diplomatic segue, returning to the Intercontinental Hotel for a meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to discuss the ongoing talks over Tehran’s nuclear program.
Kerry calls this unscheduled visit to Paris his “big hug” to the city in its winter of grief, tacked on to the end of a week-long trip that has taken him to four other countries.