By Arshad Mohammed and Tsvetelia Tsolova
SOFIA (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Thursday his visit to France was to give a "big hug" to Paris after the deadly attack by Islamist gunmen on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo.
President Barack Obama's administration drew criticism from Republican opponents at home for not sending a senior figure to a unity march in the French capital following the shootings, and the White House later conceded that Washington should have sent a higher-level representative.
Kerry was due to meet French President Francois Hollande in Paris on Friday to offer Washington's support. Asked by reporters during a visit to Bulgaria if he hoped that visit would make amends, Kerry said:
"My visit to France is basically to share a big hug with Paris and express the affection of the American people for France and for our friends there, who have been through a terrible time.
"And I don’t feel any other (contingencies) other than (the) continuation of our friendship and our responsibilities as good friends and the longest ally in our history," he said. "That’s why I am going."
Sixteen people were killed by Islamist gunmen in Charlie Hebdo's offices and in a kosher supermarket, and a policewoman was shot dead in another attack.
Obama spoke publicly about the attacks last week from the Oval Office and during a trip to Tennessee. He spoke to Hollande on the day of the attacks. He also went to the French Embassy in Washington to sign a book of condolence.
U.S. administration officials cited security requirements as a central reason why neither Obama nor Vice President Joe Biden attended the memorial march, saying their security needs can be distracting at such events.
Hollande and 44 foreign dignitaries, which included Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, headed more than a million people in a march called to show solidarity against terrorism after the attacks.
For its part, Bulgaria said it had detained a French citizen at a border checkpoint with Turkey who was suspected of being in contact several times with one of the two gunmen who attacked Charlie Hebdo.
(Reporting by Arshad Mohammed and Tsvetelia Tsolova; Writing by Matthias Williams; Editing by Mark Heinrich)