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News / Nation & World

France hails ‘hero with a backpack’ who intervened in knife attack on very young children

By JOHN LEICESTER, Associated Press
Published: June 9, 2023, 7:43am

LE PECQ, France (AP) — The attacker slashed at the 24-year-old man with the knife that he used to savagely stab one young child after another. But rather than run, Henri held his ground — using a weighty backpack he was carrying to swing at the assailant and fend off his blade.

French media hailed Henri as “the hero with a backpack” Friday after he was shown in a video grappling with the assailant and charging after him during the knife attack that critically wounded four children between the ages of 22 months and 3 years old, and also injured two adults.

Henri also got personal words of gratitude Friday from President Emmanuel Macron, who toured hospitals to meet victims and their families. In the Alpine town of Annecy, the French leader thanked medical workers, police, firefighters, civilians — including Henri — and others whose first aid and swift interventions helped save lives during the attack in the town’s lakeside park on Thursday.

“You experienced very hard moments, traumatizing,” Macron said. “I am very proud of you.”

Henri had a heavy backpack on his back and was holding another in his hand when the attacker slashed at him. But despite the blade and the attacker’s chilling aggression, Henri still continued to harass him, pursuing the man inside a playground — where he repeatedly stabbed a child in a stroller — and then out of the park again, carrying his backpacks all the while. Henri appeared to hurl one of the backpacks at the assailant at one point and then pick it up again to take another swing.

Henri’s father, François, said he believed that his son’s dogged pursuit helped dissuade the attacker from stabbing more victims before police wrestled him to the ground.

“He took a lot of risks – when he wasn’t armed, with just his backpacks,” the father told The Associated Press. “He didn’t stop running after him for many minutes, to stop him from coming back and massacring the kids even more. I think he prevented carnage by scaring him off. Really very courageous.”

François asked that their last name not be published, expressing concerns about their family being thrust suddenly and inadvertently into the public eye at a time of shock and outrage in France provoked by the viciousness of Thursday’s attack and the helplessness of its young victims.

The profile of the suspected attacker, a 31-year-old Syrian refugee, also fueled renewed political debate about French migration policies. Critics on the right and far-right of French politics quickly dusted off their arguments that French migration controls are too lax.

For his part, Henri shied away from the “hero” label. He said he “tried to act as all French people should act, or would act.”

“In that moment, you unplug your brain and react a bit like an animal by instinct,” he told broadcaster BFMTV. “It was impossible for me to witness that without reacting.”

“I am far from alone in having reacted. Many other people around started, like me, to run after him to try to scare him, push him away. And other people immediately went over to the children to take care of the injured.”

“I remember there was also a municipal worker who arrived from the right with a large plastic shovel to try to hit him,” Henri said.

French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said Friday morning that all four children underwent surgery for their life-threatening knife wounds and “are under constant medical surveillance.”

“Their situation is stable,” she said.

Government spokesman Olivier Veran, a medical doctor by training, said that two of the children remain in critical condition.

Motives for the attack in and around a children’s lakeside playground in the Alpine town of Annecy remained unexplained. The suspect, who has refugee status in Sweden, remains in custody. Psychiatrists are evaluating him, Veran said.

Henri’s father said that in phone conversation after the attack, his son “told me that the Syrian was incoherent, saying lots of strange things in different languages, invoking his father, his mother, all the Gods.”

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“In short, he was possessed by who knows what, but possessed by folly, that’s certain,” the father told the AP.

He said he didn’t show the disturbing video of the attack to his other children and his wife, and added that he and his wife had trouble sleeping even after learning that Henri was safe.

“We thanked providence and his guardian angels.,” he said.

Most of the children were rushed to a hospital in the French Alpine city of Grenoble — the first stop for Macron and his wife on Friday morning. They didn’t speak to reporters as they went inside.

The fourth wounded child was being treated in Geneva, in neighboring Switzerland.

Two of the four children are French and the other two were tourists — one British, the other Dutch.

Two adults also suffered knife wounds — life-threatening for one them, authorities said. One of the adults was injured both with a knife and by a shot fired by police as they were detaining the suspected attacker.

Portugal’s foreign ministry said that a Portuguese citizen was one of the two adults wounded.

“In the course of the tragic event, a Portuguese citizen, while trying to stop the attacker from fleeing from the police, was seriously injured and is now out of danger. For this act of courage and bravery, we thank him profoundly,” the ministry said.

French authorities said the suspect had recently been refused asylum in France, because Sweden had already granted him permanent residency and refugee status a decade ago.

Lead prosecutor Line Bonnet-Mathis said the man’s motives were unknown, but didn’t appear to be terrorism-related. He was armed with a folding knife, she said.