The US secretary of state, John Kerry, arrived in Paris on Friday to declare the “profound emotion” of his country for France.
He said the events of last week had been a living nightmare, beginning with the attack on the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.
“I wanted to tell you personally of the horror, the revulsion all Americans felt at that cowardly and despicable act against innocent victims and fundamental values.”
Kerry was speaking at Paris city hall, as part of a visit aimed at making up for the absence of senior US officials at Sunday’s mass rally in defiance of the terrorist attacks.
At an early-morning meeting at the foreign ministry with his French counterpart, Laurent Fabius, Kerry explained he had been unable to come on Sunday because of a previously arranged trip to India. “It’s good to be with you,” Kerry told Fabius. “We have a lot to talk about.”
Switching between French and English in his city hall address, Kerry said: “What the extremists, the terrorists don’t understand, will never understand, is that bravery and decency will never bow down to intimidation and terror.”
He spoke of the “ordinary men and women who became suddenly heroes”, paying tribute to Lassana Bathily, the young Muslim man from Mali who hid Jewish shoppers in a freezer at the kosher supermarket where gunman Amedy Coulibaly killed four people: “He didn’t think of himself and his security but helped a dozen people to hide in a freezer … he alerted the police and he saved lives”.
Kerry continued: “Asked why he had done this he (Bathily) said: ‘Because we are brothers. It’s not a question of Jews, Christians, Muslims … we are all in the same boat.’”
Kerry concluded: “Over and above the passionate and complex debates about the reasons for the tragedy, above politics, religion, satire … is another common hope, the hope of creating a world based on love and not on hate. What the terrorists fear most is tolerance, liberty, truth … but we simply will not descend into despair.”
Bathily said he was honoured to be invited to the event. Asked if he had a message for Kerry, Bathily, who is to be given French nationality after a campaign by supporters, said: “Welcome to France”.
Earlier, the US secretary of state and François Hollande, the French president, had embraced in front of the Élysée Palace. Hollande said the French people “were victim of an exceptional terrorist attack”, likening last week’s events to the September 11 attacks.
“We must therefore together find the necessary response. And that is the [reason] for [our] meeting today beyond friendship,” said Hollande.
Kerry had said the hastily arranged trip was to “share a big hug for Paris” in the wake of the terror attacks, but he landed in the French capital on Thursday night as the violence spread north to Belgium. A visit that was intended to be commemorative and symbolic appeared likely to become urgent and operational as European and US officials seek to contain the spread of jihadist attacks in the west.
Belgian prosecutors said on Friday that a major Islamist plot to kill police officers in the street had been foiled at the eleventh hour, after counter-terror raids led to the arrest of 15 suspected jihadis in Belgium and France. Meanwhile, French police on Friday arrested a dozen people suspected of helping the Islamist militant gunmen carry out last week’s Paris killings, the city prosecutor’s office said. Separately, German police said they had arrested two people following a raid on 11 properties linked to radical Salafists.
Kerry’s visit was organised after the White House admitted it had made a mistake in not dispatching a senior figure to Paris where 40 other world leaders took to the streets in solidarity with a million protesters after the attacks.
The burials of three more members of the Charlie Hebdo team were taking place on Friday, with bagpipes playing Amazing Grace ringing out at the funeral of Stephane Charbonnier, alias Charb, the editor-in-chief.
Since the attacks, copies of the magazine have flown off the shelves with a print run of five million compared to a normal circulation of 60,000. On Friday morning Kerry visited the scene outside the Charlie Hebdo offices where a Muslim policeman was gunned down, placing a bowl of flowers on the spot, which has also become a makeshift shrine.
After Kerry’s address at city hall, American singer James Taylor, who had travelled with Kerry, took up his guitar and gave a rendition of You’ve Got a Friend adding in “Ton ami est la”.