Prime Minister Jean Castex announced to parliament that the alert level know as “Plan Vigipirate” would be raised to “attack emergency” level (urgence attentat) following the attack in Nice.
President Emmanuel Macron condemned the “Islamist terror attack” and promised to step up security around places of worship and to boost the number the of soldiers that patrol the country's streets.
Later on Thursday a man armed with a long knife was arrested in the southeastern French city of Lyon on Thursday as he attempted to board a tram, a source close to the inquiry told AFP.
The suspect, an Afghan national in his 20s who was dressed in a traditional Afghan outfit, had already been flagged to French intelligence services, the source said.
In Nice a huge police operation was launched after the attack, which took place at the Notre-Dame church in the southern city of Nice around 9am on Thursday morning.
The death toll from the knife attack rose to three with the victims reportedly two women and a man. Officials are treating as the latest jihadist attack to rock the country.
Local police detained the suspected attacker quickly after the event, Mayor Christian Estrosi said on Twitter.
The detained attacker was injured and was taken to the hospital.
Estrosi said the attack took place inside the church, however other reports said it happened near the church.
Estrosi said on Twitter, “I can confirm everything lets us think this was a terror attack in the Notre-Dame Basilica,” in central Nice.
Je suis sur place avec la @PoliceNat06 et la @pmdenice qui a interpellé l’auteur de l’attaque. Je confirme que tout laisse supposer à un attentat terroriste au sein de la basilique Notre-Dame de #Nice06. pic.twitter.com/VmpDqRwzB1
— Christian Estrosi (@cestrosi) October 29, 2020
French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin asked people to stay away from the area and announced he was holding a crisis meeting at his ministry.
IMPORTANT#Nice : une opération de police est en cours. Évitez le secteur et suivez les consignes. Après avoir eu le maire de Nice @cestrosi, je préside une réunion de crise au Ministère de l’Intérieur.
— Gérald DARMANIN (@GDarmanin) October 29, 2020
The police carried out several small detonations at the site of the attack and urged the public not to panic.
“The situation is under control,” the police said.
No mass was underway at the time of the attack, but the church opens around 8:00 am and “people come in to pray at all hours,” Father Philippe Asso, who serves at the basilica, told AFP.
Daniel Conilh, a 32-year-old waiter at the Grand Cafe de Lyon, a block from the church, said it was shortly before 9:00 am when “shots were fired and everybody took off running.”
“A woman came in straight from the church and said, 'Run, run, someone has been stabbing people',” he told AFP, and dozens of police and rescue vehicles quickly sealed off the neighbourhood.
French terror prosecutors later confirmed that a terror probe had been opened following the knife attack.
Abdallah Zekri, director general of the French Council of Muslim Worship (CFCM), said: “I can only denounce as strongly as possible this act of cowardice against the innocent.”
Zekri called on French Muslims to cancel festivities to mark the Mawlid, or the Prophet's Birthday, which ends Thursday, “in solidarity with the victims and their loved ones.”
The attack comes almost two weeks after French teacher Samuel Paty was beheaded by an Islamist extremist after showing Charlie Hebdo cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in class as part of a less on freedom of speech.
After French President Emmanuel Macron defended the cartoons, which are deeply insulting to Muslims because Islam forbids the drawing of the Prophet Mohammed, anger has grown around the Islamic world with several countries calling for boycotts against French goods.
Emmanuel Macron's office said the president would travel to Nice on Thursday, just days before French Catholics mark the All Saint's Day holiday on November 1st.
'Act of cowardice'
In the city, painful memories remain fresh of the jihadist attack during the Bastille Day fireworks on July 14, 2016, when a man rammed his truck into a crowded promenade, killing 86 people.
Just a few days later, two teenagers murdered an 85-year-old priest as he conducted mass at his church in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray in northern France, an attack later claimed by the Islamic State group.
Thursday's attack drew condemnation from France's allies, with Germany's Angela Merkel voicing solidarity with France and EU Parliament President David Sassoli saying: “This pain is felt by all of us in Europe.
“We have a duty to stand together against violence and those that seek to incite and spread hatred,” he said on Twitter.
Italy's Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte condemned a “vile attack” but vowed it “will not shake the common front defending the values of freedom and peace.”