President Emmanuel Macron met on Friday with victims of a stabbing attack that injured six people, including four children, in southeastern France a day before. He also praised those who helped stop the attack, including a bystander known to the French public only as Henri — hailed as “the backpack hero” for swinging and hurling his bag at the assailant.
“Attacking children is the most barbaric act possible, and I think that’s what devastated all of us,” Mr. Macron said in Annecy, the Alpine city where a man lunged at bystanders and families on Thursday with a switchblade knife before police officers arrested him. The children are 3 years old or younger.
Mr. Macron, who earlier in the day had met with victims hospitalized in Grenoble, about 60 miles south of Annecy, alongside his wife, said that their conditions were continuing to improve.
Addressing a gathering of local officials, emergency workers, police officers, and others — including Henri — Mr. Macron said the swift response to stop the attacker showed France’s strength and resiliency.
“You performed your duty, but each of you, by performing your duty, did much more,” Mr. Macron said.
“I am very proud of you,” he said.
The suspect was identified by the French authorities as a homeless Syrian man who had obtained refugee status in Sweden a decade ago and arrived last fall in France, where his application for asylum was rejected because of his existing status in Sweden.
People brought flowers and lit candles at a makeshift memorial near the lakeside park in Annecy where the attack unfolded, a usually peaceful spot where tourists and residents come to relax and take in views of the surrounding mountains.
Henri, a 24-year-old student, did not give his last name in interviews with the French media. He told BFMTV that he was in the park in Annecy, one of many stops on a nine-month hitchhiking trip to visit France’s cathedrals, when he saw the assailant. He initially thought that the man was trying to steal someone’s purse, he said, until he saw him attack children.
“That’s when your brain turns off and you act like an animal, by instinct,” Henri said. “I didn’t even think.”
In harrowing video clips on social and mainstream media, Henri can be seen swinging and throwing a small black backpack at the assailant — a man wearing black clothes, sunglasses and a scarf around his head — and keeping him at a distance. Other bystanders also tried to run after the attacker and assist the injured children, said Henri, who was not injured himself.
When the man ran away, Henri dropped a bulkier, 40-pound bag that he was carrying on his back to stay in pursuit and continued to swing at him with the backpack. A city employee carrying a long plastic shovel also arrived, and he tried to ward off the assailant, Henri said.
“You try to act as you can, with what you have available to you,” he said.
In the video clips, the assailant can be heard saying, “In the name of Jesus Christ” in English before running and lunging at people with a knife.
French media reported that he had told immigration authorities that he was a Christian and that he was wearing a cross at the time of the attack, and Gérald Darmanin, the French interior minister, told TF1 television on Thursday evening that police officers who rushed to the scene on Thursday had witnessed “religious signs, Christian signs.”
Henri, who said he was a practicing Catholic, said he stayed in the park to pray after the police arrested the assailant. “It’s profoundly anti-Christian to attack perfectly innocent” people, he said, adding, “Anyone would have done what I did.”
The prosecutor’s office in Annecy said that the suspect was still in custody and being questioned by the police. The case is not being treated as a terrorist incident, and a motivation remains unclear.
The French authorities have not fully identified the suspect, saying only that he was a Syrian refugee who had obtained asylum in Sweden in 2013 and lived there for a decade before leaving for southern Europe.
In an interview with the Agence France-Presse news agency, the man’s mother, who lives in the United States, said he had fled Syria in 2011 because of the civil war there and had reached Sweden after traveling through Turkey and Greece.
His ex-wife, also a Syrian refugee who obtained asylum in Sweden, told the Agence France-Presse that she met the man in Turkey, later marrying him and having a child, but that he decided to leave Sweden last year after failing to become a Swedish citizen.
The man arrived legally in France last October, Mr. Darmanin said, but the French authorities rejected his asylum request on the grounds that he had already obtained refugee status in Sweden. The man was notified of that rejection on Sunday, just days before the attack.
“It’s a troubling coincidence,” Mr. Darmanin said.
The suspect had no criminal record and had never been flagged by French security services, Mr. Darmanin said, but police officers briefly checked in on him last Sunday because he was washing himself in Annecy’s lake. The man was expected to undergo a psychiatric evaluation on Friday.