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By Paul Richter, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — The White House admitted Monday that it blundered in not sending a higher-ranking administration official to Sunday’s giant rally in Paris in support of free speech.

“We agree that we should have sent someone with a higher profile,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said in response to questions about criticism over its failure to send a top-level official.

The highest-ranking U.S. representatives were Jane Hartley, the U.S. ambassador to France, and Victoria Nuland, the assistant secretary of state for Europe.

France rushed to defend the Obama administration. Though President Barack Obama was not among the nearly four dozen world leaders who appeared, “there are absolutely no hard feelings,” Gerard Araud, France’s ambassador to the United States, said on MSNBC. “The first impression we have had is the support expressed by President Obama.”

An estimated 1.5 million people attended the rally, which was aimed at expressing international unity four days after attacks in Paris by French Islamists killed 17.

Among those present were the heads of state of France, Germany and the United Kingdom.

But Araud noted that Obama visited the French embassy in Washington to express condolences, and that he put out two written statements last week deploring the massacres and expressing sympathy for France. Obama also briefly talked about the attacks at the beginning of speeches he gave last week on domestic initiatives.

Secretary of State John Kerry, traveling on official business in India, announced Monday that he was shuffling his schedule to visit France at the end of the week. He insisted that the criticism of the administration was “quibbling,” given officials’ repeated expressions of support.

Obama’s decision drew fire from a number of Republicans. But even some critics often sympathetic to the administration said the decision was a blunder.

“Not an excuse in the universe” could explain the lapse, tweeted Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. peace negotiator who is now with the Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington.

Photo: Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, and Gerard Araud, Ambassador of France, attend a silent march in Washington, D.C., on Sunday, Jan. 11, 2015, to honor those who died during three days of attacks in Paris. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)

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