French president Emmanuel Macron and his wife, Brigitte, have visited preschool children and an elderly man who were badly wounded in a knife attack in the French Alps, as the suspect’s detention was extended after a psychiatric examination on Friday.
Four toddlers – one aged 22 months, two aged two and one aged three – as well as two men aged 70 and 78 were injured in the stabbing, which happened on Thursday morning in a children’s playground in the popular lakeside town of Annecy.
Mr Macron and his wife, who the Élysée Palace said wanted to visit not just the victims but “everyone who has contributed in helping and supporting them”, visited three of the children and their families in hospital in Grenoble.
The couple later travelled to Annecy where they sat at the bedside of one of the injured men, who was being treated for multiple stab wounds and an injury from a stray police bullet fired during the suspect’s arrest.
They also met a young Catholic student, Henri D’Anselme, who has been named “the backpack hero” by French media after he came face to face with the assailant and used his rucksack as a shield to try to block him.
Speaking at the end of his visit, Mr Macron told police and emergency workers they could be “extremely proud” of their response. The two children who had been most seriously wounded had stabilised, he said.
“The doctors are fairly optimistic,” the French president said. He added that his visit was intended “to bring the whole nation’s support to these children, their families, to Annecy and its inhabitants”. Attacking small children was “the most barbarous act there can be”, he said.
A fourth child was being treated in a Swiss hospital in Geneva. All had been operated on and two remained in a critical but stable condition a day after the attack, the prime minister, Élisabeth Borne, said.
Officials said the other children, and the two adult victims, had less serious injuries, although there were conflicting reports on their condition. One of the children injured in the attack is British and another has Dutch nationality.
The motive for the attack remains unclear. The regional prosecutor, Line Bonnet-Mathis, said the detention of the alleged attacker, named as Abdalmasih H, had been extended on Friday after a psychiatric examination.
Police had not yet been able to interview the suspect, a 31-year-old Syrian national who has refugee status in Sweden and is being investigated for attempted murder, because of his “agitated” condition, French media reported.
Ms Bonnet-Mathis said there was no obvious terrorist motive and other officials told reporters that the suspect had not been under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of the attack, at about 9.45am local time on Thursday.
Ms Borne said the alleged attacker had not been known to any intelligence service and did not have any history of psychiatric problems. She said he was homeless and an isolated individual.
The rampage has intensified tensions in France over immigration, with right-wing politicians seizing on the suspect’s origins.
An impromptu shrine emerged overnight at the park, with local people placing candles, flowers and messages.
“We are not prepared for these kinds of events,” said one Annecy resident, Léo Ganassali (21) as he laid flowers. “I came as a child to play in this park and to see it in mourning is very, very tough,” he told Agence France-Presse.
Authorities said the suspect had spent 10 years in Sweden and recently divorced from his Swedish wife. He had also sought asylum in Switzerland, Italy and France, where his application had been rejected on Sunday because of his status in Sweden.
Prosecutors said he entered France legally in November 2022. “He called me around four months ago. He was living in a church,” his ex-wife said, adding that he had left Sweden because he had been unable to get Swedish nationality.
The alleged attacker’s mother, who lives in the US, said she was “in a state of shock”. The French interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, said it was a “troubling coincidence” that the stabbings followed the rejection of the suspect’s French asylum application.
Video footage of the attack, taken by a bystander and verified by multiple news organisations, showed the attacker, dressed in black and carrying a blade about 10cm long, jumping over a low wall into a children’s playground.
The suspect, who reportedly declared himself a Syrian Christian in his French asylum application, could be heard shouting “in the name of Jesus Christ” before he lunged at a young child in a stroller, pushing aside a woman who tried to fend him off.
French media reported that the alleged attacker’s mental health was cause for concern. BFM TV quoted unnamed sources as saying the suspect had been “incoherent” since his arrest and had rolled on the floor several times.
A mass was to be held in Annecy Cathedral in tribute to the victims and their families later on Friday, church authorities said.
The attack spurred fresh debate of France’s immigration and asylum policy. “It seems like the culprit has the same profile that you see often in these attacks,” said Éric Ciotti, the head of the right-wing Republicans party.
Marine Le Pen, of the far-right National Rally, said France should “regain sovereignty” on immigration. Sweden and France are both members of the Schengen area, the world’s largest passport-free zone, which allows the unrestricted movement of people between 26 European countries.
(c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2023