A knife-wielding man stabbed four children and two adults at a park and a playground in southeastern France on Thursday, in an attack that horrified the country and that President Emmanuel Macron called “absolutely cowardly.”
The authorities said that a suspect, a Syrian asylum seeker who arrived in France last fall, had been arrested in the attack, which took place in Annecy, a city of about 130,000 people in the French Alps. Most of the wounded were hospitalized with critical injuries.
The incident was not being treated as a terrorist incident so far, the authorities said.
The brazen stabbing of very young children — ages 22 months to 3 years — shattered a peaceful morning in one of Annecy’s bucolic lakeside parks, and quickly sparked outrage across the country, where past attacks have left deep scars. It also set off political recriminations over immigration.
“The nation is in shock,” Mr. Macron said on Twitter.
Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne, who hurried to Annecy after the stabbings, said the victims had been “savagely attacked.”
Line Bonnet-Mathis, the city’s public prosecutor, said that the suspect was being questioned and that he had acted alone.
Ms. Bonnet-Mathis said the victims were in “extremely fragile” condition and had been transferred to hospitals in the French city of Grenoble and in Geneva, in neighboring Switzerland. One of the injured children was British and one was Dutch.
The attack occurred just before 10 a.m. in an area with two parks, Les Jardins de l’Europe and Le Pâquier, that borders a glacier-formed lake surrounded by mountains.
Anthony Le Tallec, a former professional soccer player in Annecy, said in an Instagram story from the park, where he filmed police officers and emergency services at the scene, that he had been jogging when he saw dozens of people running in the other direction.
“There was a mom who told me: ‘Run! Someone is stabbing everyone. He stabbed children,’” Mr. Le Tallec said. He then moved out of the way as the assailant, being chased by the police, ran toward him, he said. The attacker rushed up to an older man nearby and stabbed him, Mr. Le Tallec added.
“It’s crazy to see this in Annecy,” he said.
Ms. Borne, the prime minister, said that the suspect was homeless and that he had obtained refugee status in Sweden a decade ago. He had also applied for asylum in France, she said, but was refused because of his existing status in Sweden.
Ms. Borne said that the suspect had no criminal record, had never been flagged by French intelligence services and had no known psychiatric disorders.
Ms. Bonnet-Mathis, the prosecutor, said initial tests had found that the suspect did not appear to have been under the influence of alcohol or drugs at the time of the attack.
The assailant was armed with a single switchblade knife, but one of the adult victims was also hit by a bullet when the police fired at the attacker, Ms. Bonnet-Mathis said.
Asked about the suspect’s religion — some French media reported that the suspect had told French asylum authorities that he was a Christian and that he was wearing a cross at the time of the attack — Ms. Bonnet-Mathis declined to comment.
Laurent Wauquiez, who presides over the Regional Council of Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, the region that includes Annecy, said that the attack happened as families were pushing children in strollers and high-school students were exercising nearby.
“Everyone is extremely shocked,” Mr. Wauquiez said. “It’s a garden, there is a school right nearby, facing a lake that is a haven of peace. Nobody can imagine this barbarity.”
Mathilde Fuzat, an 18-year-old high school student, said she had been with classmates in the park when she saw a commotion nearby.
“We didn’t know what to do,” she told Le Dauphiné Libéré, a local newspaper. Then, she said, “I saw a mom pick her child up from the ground, and that’s when we all understood that it was very, very serious.”
Ms. Fuzat described a scene of chaos, as people ran from the assailant with children in their arms, warning bystanders that he had a knife. Her teacher quickly urged the class to leave.
“I was stressed, I was very panicked,” she said.
France’s lower house of Parliament observed a minute of silence, briefly interrupting fiery debates among lawmakers on Mr. Macron’s pension overhaul.
Terrorist attacks have receded from the headlines in France in recent years, but the country is still on high alert.
In April, Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said on the news channel BFMTV that the security forces had thwarted 41 potential terrorist attacks since 2017, including about a dozen since 2020. Most had been planned by people with radical Islamist views, he said.
Attacks targeting children are rare in France.
In 1993, a masked gunman held toddlers hostage for two days at their kindergarten in a suburb of Paris, but he ultimately released them unharmed before being killed by police officers. And in 2012, a radical Islamist gunman went on a shooting spree around the southwestern city of Toulouse, killing a rabbi and three children at a Jewish school. The police fatally shot the attacker several days later.
The assault on Thursday quickly fueled political debates over immigration, a sensitive issue in France.
Mr. Macron’s government has tried for months to introduce a bill that would make it easier to deport people who are in France illegally while also extending work opportunities for migrants with needed skills. But the bill has been repeatedly postponed, as it remains unclear whether the government can secure a majority to pass it.
Some politicians were quick to criticize the government’s track record on immigration after the stabbing on Thursday, even as details of the attack had yet to emerge.
“Instead of lamenting every new crime, let’s put a stop to mass immigration!” Olivier Marleix, a top Republican lawmaker, said on Twitter on Thursday. Jordan Bardella, the president of the far-right National Rally party, said that France needed to “regain control of a situation that is slipping through the government’s fingers.”
Ms. Borne, the prime minister, noted that the suspect had obtained asylum in Sweden and could therefore legally travel around Europe’s visa-free, 27-country Schengen zone.
“Before getting carried away on these issues, we need to wait for the investigation to take place,” she said.