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French policemen stand guard at the site of a knife attack at the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Nice in Nice, France, on Oct. 29, 2020.

ERIC GAILLARD/AFP/Getty Images

Three people were killed in a knife attack in and around a Roman Catholic church in the southern French city of Nice on Thursday, becoming the latest victims in what President Emmanuel Macron cast as a struggle between Islamic extremism and the secular ideals of the French state.

France’s chief anti-terrorism prosecutor, Jean-François Ricard, said the church’s 55-year-old caretaker and a 60-year-old woman were both found dead inside the city’s Notre Dame basilica with their throats cut. A third victim, a 44-year-old woman, fled the scene but died from multiple stab wounds in a nearby bar where she took shelter. None of the victims were named on Thursday.

Nice Mayor Christian Estrosi said the attacker, whom Reuters named as 21-year-old Tunisian national Brahim Aouissaoui, repeatedly shouted “Allahu akbar!” or “God is great!” even after his arrest, while he was receiving medical treatment at the scene after being shot by police. Mr. Estrosi said the behaviour of the man, who was taken into police custody, left “no doubt” about the motivations for the attack.

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Mr. Ricard said video footage showed the attacker had arrived in France by train from Italy, changed clothes in Nice’s main train station, then walked to the church to begin his attack. Mr. Ricard said the attacker, who arrived in Italy on Oct. 9, was carrying an identification document issued by the Italian Red Cross.

In another incident on Thursday, a Saudi citizen was arrested after a security guard was stabbed outside the French consulate in the city of Jeddah.

“Very clearly, it’s France that has been attacked,” Mr. Macron declared after visiting the basilica in Nice. Amid worries of more violence, Mr. Macron put the country’s security forces on the highest alert and said he would raise the number of soldiers deployed to guard schools and places of worship from 3,000 to 7,000.

“If we are under attack, it’s because of our values, our taste for freedom, the ability on our soil to have freedom of belief,” Mr. Macron said in Nice. “And I say it with clarity again today: We will not give any ground.”

The killings came less than two weeks after middle-school teacher Samuel Paty was beheaded outside his school near Paris after showing controversial cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed to his civics class.

French President Emmanuel Macron speaks to the media at the scene of the attack in Nice.

Eric Gaillard/The Associated Press

Mr. Macron provoked a firestorm of criticism from Muslim leaders – led by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan – in the wake of the attack by referring to Islam as a religion “in crisis.” He added that a minority of France’s estimated six million Muslims were forming a “counter-society” outside of the French mainstream.

Mr. Macron has lionized Mr. Paty – who gave Muslim students the option of looking away before showing caricatures first published by the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine – saying the teacher’s commitment to secularism and freedom of speech represented the best of French values.

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“We will continue, professor,” he said in a eulogy delivered at Mr. Paty’s Oct. 21 funeral. “We will continue the fight for freedom and the freedom of which you are now the face.”

Mr. Erdogan said Mr. Macron needed “mental checks” and called for a boycott of French goods. Amid a growing rivalry between Paris and Ankara – who have taken opposite sides in both the civil war in Libya and the fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan – French officials warned before the Nice attacks that Mr. Erdogan’s rhetoric risked inciting violence.

On Thursday, a spokesman for the Turkish government condemned the killings, while again calling for Mr. Macron to change his approach.

“As our President Erdogan has stated many times, Islam cannot be used in the name of terrorism,” Fahrettin Altun, Mr. Erdogan’s director of communications, posted on his Twitter account. “We call on the French leadership to avoid further inflammatory rhetoric against Muslims and focus, instead, on finding the perpetrators.”

Some leaders used more confrontational language. Shortly after the killings in Nice, former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohammed posted on his own Twitter account that Mr. Macron’s remarks in the wake of the killing of Mr. Paty were “very primitive.” While he said he rejected violence, Mr. Mahathir said “the Muslims have a right to punish the French. The boycott cannot compensate the wrongs committed by the French all these years.”

There have been anti-French rallies across the Muslim world in recent days, from Mauritania to Iraq to Indonesia, including a massive rally in Bangladesh this week where tens of thousands marched through the capital city of Dhaka and burned an effigy of Mr. Macron.

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But remarks by French officials suggested a change of tone seemed unlikely. “Enough is enough,” said Mr. Estrosi, the right-wing mayor of Nice. “It’s time now for France to exonerate itself from the laws of peace in order to definitively wipe out Islamo-fascism from our territory.”

The palm-treed Mediterranean city has been the scene of extremist violence before. In 2016, 86 people were killed when a Tunisian-born French citizen drove a truck into a crowd of people celebrating the country’s Bastille Day holiday. The previous year, more than 150 people were killed in a series of attacks in Paris, including 12 who died in an assault on the offices of Charlie Hebdo that was claimed by an arm of the al-Qaeda terrorist group.

Thursday’s attacks came hours before the country was to start a new lockdown intended to combat the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Counterterrorism expert Yan St-Pierre said that with fewer people expected to be on the streets after the lockdown begins “there’s a possibility the attackers in France may have felt compelled to act today.”

François Heisbourg, a Paris-based political analyst, said that even if the Nice killings prove to be the work of a single individual, most French would interpret it as an attack on the country as a whole.

“The country will take this as a much broader attack, even if it was a lone-wolf attack, which we don’t know. The general public will view this as part of the broader continuum of the [struggle over] the place of political Islam in France,” said Mr. Heisbourg, a veteran of the Defence and Foreign Affairs departments of the French government. “This will be seen as a remake of what happened to the teacher.”

Mr. Heisbourg said that while Mr. Macron’s critical remarks about Islam had drawn criticism abroad, they were popular with a French public weary of the deadly extremist violence. “Whatever he says, whether wise or unwise, politically, the tougher he sounds the better.”

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