The attack took place just a fortnight after an 18-year-old Chechen-Russian beheaded a Paris school teacher who had shown his students cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad during a lesson about free speech.
The attack also occurred on Mawlid, which celebrates the birth of the Prophet. France’s Council for the Muslim Faith condemned Thursday’s attack and called on the country’s 6 million Muslims to cancel Mawlid festivities as a sign of solidarity.
About two hours after the attack in Nice, a man was shot dead by police in Avignon, about 250 kilometres west of Nice, after shouting threats at police and the public. In Saudi Arabia, a security officer guarding the French consulate in the city of Jeddah was injured by a man wielding a knife.
The Nice attacker was shot by police and taken to hospital. Estrosi said the man was shouting “Allahu Akbar” even after being apprehended.
French President Emmanuel Macron swiftly ordered the deployment of 4000 military personnel to guard churches, places of worship and some schools.
“Very clearly, France has been attacked,” he said.
“I wish to say of all our fellow citizens regardless of their religion, whether or not they are believers, that at times such as this we must stand together, give up nothing and not give into divisiveness.
“I know all of our fellow citizens feel a real sense of shock and are overwhelmed by what has happened. So I call for unity for one and all.”
The Nice incident is the 34th terrorist attack in France since the Charlie Hebdo assault of 2015.
‘A right to kill millions’
Macron’s plan to crack down on Islamic extremism in France has been met with fierce resistance by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan.
They have accused the French President of demonising Muslims, and called for a boycott of French goods.
In an extraordinary series of tweets following the Nice attack, former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad called Macron “primitive” and said Muslims had a “right” to punish the French.
“The French in the course of their history has killed millions of people. Many were Muslims,” he tweeted.
“Muslims have a right to be angry and to kill millions of French people for the massacres of the past.”
Edrogan had claimed Macron needed “some sort of mental treatment” after the President recently unveiled a series of measures to tackle radical Islam.
Macron has pledged to ban home-schooling, punish local officials who let religion influence the management of public spaces, end the training of French imams outside the country and implement “anti-coup” legislation to prevent “hostile takeovers” of moderates in charge of mosques.
He has also defended the right for French satirical magazines to publish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad. Charlie Hebdo on Wednesday published a cartoon showing Erdogan holding a beer while lifting the skirt of a woman wearing a hijab to reveal her naked buttocks.
Former Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull last week described Macron as one of the world’s most outstanding leaders and said his approach to combating Islamic extremism was sound.
Location of attack shocks France
The attack in Nice has resonated in France because it targeted a church. The country was similarly shocked by Paty’s murder because it targeted a teacher and was carried out at a school.
“Before it was a school professor, this time the Islamo-fascist barbarism chose to attack inside a church. Again, it is very symbolic,” said Estrosi, the Nice mayor.
France is also battling a major second wave of coronavirus infections and will return to lockdown from Friday.
A restaurant owner, named as David, told BFMTV that he flagged down police after the attack at the church.
“I was selling croissants when a man came in and said to me: ‘Monsieur, 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 grill.”
French Prime Minister Jean Castex labelled the beheading and stabbing frenzy “as cowardly as it is barbaric”.
Brendan Berne, who finished serving as Australia’s ambassador to France earlier this month and has since moved to Nice, had visited the church on Wednesday and said he was shocked by what unfolded there the following day.
He was at a cafe on Thursday when police “flew by” on their way to the incident and later saw a woman crying on the phone about someone she knew who had been injured.
“There is a feeling of getting on with it here in the streets, though,” he said.
Eighty-six people were killed and nearly 500 others injured when a truck ploughed through Bastille Day crowds on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice in 2016.
The president of the Conference of European Rabbis, Pinchas Goldschmidt, said the cycle of violence in France needed to stop.
“It is imperative that religious and communal figures make it clear that murder is abhorred by religion and such attacks stand in total contradiction to Islam’s explicit recognition of tolerance and compassion,” he said.
Bevan Shields is the Europe correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
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