PARIS — An assailant with a knife killed at least three people on Thursday morning at a church in the southern French city of Nice in what officials described as an Islamist terrorist attack.
The assault comes just weeks after the beheading of a teacher, Samuel Paty, in a Paris suburb by a young Muslim man, an act that has shaken the country. The mayor of Nice, Christian Estrosi, said that one of the killings on Thursday bore similarities to the attack in Paris, but did not give further details.
“There is a woman who quite clearly was attacked with the same modus operandi as Samuel Paty,” Mr. Estrosi told BFM TV. Mr. Paty was killed in mid-October after he had shown caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in a class.
In the aftermath of Mr. Paty’s death, President Emmanuel Macron is facing a backlash and calls to boycott French products in some Muslim countries for his response. He vowed that France would protect the right to caricature the Prophet Muhammad. Earlier in October, before the attack on the teacher, Mr. Macron even went as far as to suggest that Islam was in need of an Enlightenment.
Mr. Macron has vowed to crack down on what he called “Islamist separatism” with a range of measures. France has conducted dozens of raids against people suspected of having ties to Islamist extremism. It has also temporarily closed a major mosque and disbanded a Muslim aid group that authorities accuse of “advocating radical Islam” and hate speech.
Mr. Estrosi, the mayor of Nice, picked up on the theme in his remarks on Thursday.
“Enough is enough,” he said. “It is now time for France to exempt itself of peace time laws to permanently annihilate Islamo-facism from our territory.”
Éric Ciotti, a lawmaker who represents the region that includes Nice, said that three people were killed in the attack at the Notre-Dame de L’Assomption basilica, a church in central Nice. The mayor said one was a woman and another was a sacristan of the church.
France’s antiterrorism prosecutor said that the office had opened an investigation into terrorism-related offenses.
The mayor told reporters at the scene that a suspect, who has not yet been identified, had been arrested and was currently hospitalized after being shot and wounded by the police. The suspect “kept repeating Allahu akbar in front of us even though he was sedated,” Mr. Estrosi said, adding this left “no doubt” as to the motivation of the attack.
Two of the victims were killed in the church itself, while a third died after taking refuge in a nearby bar, the mayor said.
At least two other stabbing attacks were also reported on Thursday, though it was unclear if they were related to the events in Nice.
In the southern city of Avignon, a knife-wielding assailant who threatened bystanders was shot and killed by police officers, according to Europe 1 radio.
And the French Embassy in Saudi Arabia said in a statement that a security guard at the French Consulate in the city of Jeddah was attacked by a knife-wielding assailant, who was quickly arrested. The embassy said that the security guard had been hospitalized but that his injuries were not life-threatening, and it urged French people in Saudi Arabia to show “maximum vigilance.”
In recent years, France has experienced several attacks like those carried out on Thursday. The country faced a string of mass casualty attacks in 2015 and 2016 by organized networks, the most recent assaults have more often been isolated acts carried out by lone assailants living in France, something that can be harder to prevent.
None of the assailants in two previous attacks, including a stabbing in September near the former offices of Charlie Hebdo — the satirical newspaper that printed caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad — were known to the authorities.
In 2016, Nice was traumatized by one of France’s worst terrorist attacks, when a man plowed a 19-ton refrigeration truck into crowds that had gathered on the city’s main seaside promenade to watch fireworks, killing 86.
The police warned residents to stay away from the area around the church on Thursday as a “very serious” event was underway and controlled explosives were being used to clear the church of any suspicious packages. They also urged residents to remain calm. Videos posted to social media showed lines of people filing out of the area around the church as police evacuated the scene.
Lawmakers at the National Assembly, the lower house of the French Parliament, on Thursday morning observed a minute of silence when they heard news of the attack in Nice.
The assault came just hours before France is scheduled to go back on a one-month lockdown because of the coronavirus pandemic, which has flared dangerously around Europe over the past weeks with a surge of cases and hospitalizations.
“I can only, once again in the very difficult circumstances that our country is going through, in the challenges it is undergoing, call on the entire national representation to unity and cohesion,” Prime Minister Jean Castex told lawmakers.
The French interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, said in a post on Twitter that he had immediately convened a crisis meeting. Mr. Macron, who joined the meeting, is expected in Nice later on Thursday.
Politicians from across the political spectrum condemned the attack, including French Muslim representatives.
Mohammed Moussaoui, the president of the French Council of Muslim Faith, asked in a Twitter post that French Muslims cancel all Mawlid festivities, which celebrate the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad, “as a sign of mourning and solidarity with the victims and their loved ones.”
Megan Specia contributed reporting from London.