Speaking outside the basilica in Nice where a man armed with a knife killed two women and a man the president said France was under attack.
France will not give in to terror, Emmanuel Macron has said in a call for firmness and unity after the country’s latest terrorist attack left three people dead.
He announced that the number of soldiers patrolling the streets would more than double in the coming days and expressed his support for the Catholic community.
The attack on Thursday morning came only 13 days after an 18-year-old man beheaded Samuel Paty, 47, a history teacher, outside his high school north-east of Paris. The professor had shown pupils caricatures, including one of the prophet Muhammad published in the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, during a discussion on freedom of speech.
Macron promised after Paty’s murder to crack down on Islamist extremism, including shutting down mosques and other organisations accused of fomenting radicalism and violence. His comments sparked angry protests across the Muslim world. Pictures of the president were burned and there were calls for a boycott of French goods.
Macron also made reference on Thursday to the 2016 killing of Father Jacques Hamel, a Catholic priest whose throat was cut by two men inside his Normandy church.
“France is being attacked,” the president said. “Three of our compatriots died at the basilica in Nice today and at the same time a French consular site was attacked in Saudi Arabia.
“I want to express, first and foremost, the nation’s support for the Catholics of France and elsewhere. After 2016, with the killing of Father Hamel, it is the Catholics of our country attacked once more, and just before All Saints Day. We are at their side in order that religion can be freely exercised in our country. People can believe or not believe, all religions can be practised, but today the nation is beside our Catholic compatriots.
“My second message is to Nice and the people of Nice who have already suffered as a result of the Islamist terrorist folly. This is the third time terrorism has struck your city and you have the support and solidarity of the nation.
“If we have been attacked once again, it is because of our values, our taste for freedom; the freedom to believe freely and not give in to any terror. We will give in to nothing. Today we have increased our security to deal with the terrorist threat.”
Macron said the French military was being mobilised to protect all places of worship, particularly Catholic churches, for the religious holiday of All Saints Day on Sunday. The number of soldiers on the streets is to be raised from 3,000 to 7,000 and troops will be deployed outside schools for the return to class on Monday.
The public prosecutor was expected to give details of Thursday morning’s attack at a press conference later, the president said.
“Our absolute determination in the face of these acts will continue and we will protect all our citizens. In response, my message is one of absolute firmness and unity. There is only one community in France, the national community,” he said.
“All of you, whatever your religion, whether you believe or not, must unite and not give in to a spirit of division. All citizens are deeply shocked and shaken by what has happened.
“Firmness and unity is our line today and it is the line we will follow tomorrow.”
The attack in Nice happened at 9am on Thursday inside the Notre-Dame Basilica in the city centre.
One of the victims was reported to be a 70-year-old woman. There were reports the woman had been beheaded or had her throat cut.
A man, believed to be the church sexton, was the second victim. He was named as Vincent Loqués, 55 and a father of two children. He also reportedly had his throat cut.
A woman in her 40s was critically injured and managed to run from the church but died of her injuries.
Police described the scene as a “vision of horror”. The national anti-terrorist prosecutor said an investigation had been opened into “killings linked to a terrorist organisation”.
The attacker, named by French media as Brahim Aoussaoui, was shot in the shoulder by police at about 9.10am and taken to hospital. He had no identity papers on him, but he was reported to be a 21-year old Tunisian national who had arrived in France via Lampedusa, Italy, at the beginning of October. Police said they were verifying the name he had given.
The mayor of Nice, Christian Estrosi, said the man had said “Allahu Akbar” several times while he was being arrested.
He said one of the female victims had been decapitated, but he had no details of how the two others had been killed.
“We have two people killed inside the church … and a third person who was in a bar facing the church where she had taken refuge,” Estrosi said. “Enough is enough … we have to remove this Islamo-fascism from our territory.”
Also on Thursday, there were reports that a man carrying a knife and threatening passersby in the street at Avignon had been shot dead by police. The shooting happened at 11.15am, just over two hours after the Nice attack. Police opened fire after the man reportedly threatened them.
A witness to the Nice attack, a man called David who runs the Brioche Chaude restaurant opposite the church, told BFMTV he had alerted the police.
“I was selling croissants when a man came in and said to me: ‘Sir, there’s a decapitated woman in the cathedral.’ I didn’t believe him at first but he repeated it. I went to the cathedral and saw the municipal police and called to them. They came quickly.
“I went back [to the restaurant] and pulled down the security grille.”
Police immediately locked down the city centre.
They have taken fingerprints of the attacker to establish if he is known to security services. Officers are also examining CCTV recordings to establish his movements beforehand. Nice is one of the few French cities with an extensive CCTV network.
David-Olivier Reverdy, of the French police union Alliance Police Nationale, said security forces had warned of a heightened terrorist threat over the last few days, but that it was impossible to have officers everywhere to prevent attacks.
“We should recognise that police officers, municipal and national, were quickly at the scene and were able to neutralise the individual before he could cause any further injuries or deaths,” he said.
The Conseil Français du Culte Musulman (French Muslim Council, CFCM) condemned Thursday’s attack and called on Muslims to cancel their Mawlid celebrations – from 28-29 October to mark the birth of the Prophet – as a “sign of mourning and solidarity with the victims and their loved ones”.
Estrosi said the whole of Nice was deeply shocked: “Before it was a school professor, this time the Islamo-fascist barbarism chose to attack inside a church. Again, it is very symbolic,” he said.
Also on Thursday, Le Progrès newspaper reported that a man in “traditional Afghan dress” and carrying a knife was arrested in Lyon, and a Saudi man was arrested in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, after injuring a guard at the French consulate with a “sharp tool”, state television reported.