Two adults and four children – between 22 months and three years old – were badly injured in Thursday’s attack at a lakeside park in the alpine city of Annecy, which has drawn international shock and condemnation.
As two of the children remained in a criticial condition and a man – reportedly stabbed six times and struck by a police bullet – contended with life-threatening injuries on Friday morning, president Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte travelled to hospital in Grenoble to meet them and their families.
Arriving later in Annecy, the president also met with a man named only as Henri, a 24-year-old philosophy student who came face-to-face with the attacker while making a months-long walking pilgrimage of France’s cathedrals.
Footage shows him trying to block the assailant with one of his two backpacks, pursuing the man into the playground and throwing one of his bags at the attacker, after spotting the knifeman attacking children in a stroller as their mother desperately tried to shield them.
He is then seen pursuing the assailant across the wide expanse of the Le Paquier grasslands, dropping one of his backpacks to run faster, as police also start giving chase.
So far, most of France only knows him by the first and only name given on his social media, on which his only public comment so far is the message: “Pray for the children, I am ok.”
French media have called him “héros au sac à dos”, translating to the backpack hero, and his Facebook and Instagram accounts have been flooded with messages giving thanks for his actions.
“All I know is I was not there by chance,” he told the CNews television network. “It was unthinkable to do nothing ... I followed my instincts and did what I could to protect the weak.”
Speaking later on to BFM TV, Henri said that, “at times like that, you do whatever you can with whatever you've got”.
“Many other people intervened in whatever way they could – I saw a park employee try to hit the attacker with his big plastic spade,” said the 24-year-old, adding: “I acted like any French person would. If there is any lesson to be learned from my experience, it's that anything is possible if you stop being passive in the face of attacks of this kind.”
As he gathered among a crowd of rescuers and first responders to whom Mr Macron expressed his “gratitude and admiration”, the French president singled Henri out for praise, saying: “You experienced very hard moments, traumatising. I am very proud of you.”
The student had posted on Instagram in late May about being two months into a nine-month pilgrimage which would see him walk and hitchhike across France, having started in Provence.
Many flocked to his social media pages to hail his courage, with one person writing: “May God bless you. You did what you could at that moment, you did not give up, you did not run. You are an angel.”
“Bravo for your courage and bravery, you saved lives today, you can be proud of yourself my friend,” wrote one commenter, while another said: “France has a hero tonight, a humble hero.”
Many of the hundreds who wrote to share their thanks and “deep respect” for his “incredible” bravery called for him to be awarded the Legion of Honour, the highest French order of merit, while others living across France offered to host him as he continues his pilgrimage.
While some said they feared there would have been more victims had he not intervened, other well-wishers suggested that “your adventure definitely didn’t lead you here by chance”.
Henri’s father, Francois, 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 said. “He didn’t stop running after him for many minutes, to stop him from coming back and massacring the kids even more ... Really very courageous.”
Henri’s father said his son had told him the attacker “was incoherent, saying lots of strange things in different languages, invoking his father, his mother, all the gods”, adding: “In short, he was possessed by who knows what, but possessed by folly, that’s certain.”
Francois 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 attack.
Residents continued to gather at the popular children’s park on Friday to lay flowers, teddy bears, candles and written messages in tribute to the victims.
The 31-year-old suspect, a Syrian refugee who eyewitnesses said invoked Jesus Christ during the onslaught – condemned “odious and unspeakable” by Britain’s prime minister Rishi Sunak – was being assessed by psychiatrists, and French authorities said they did not believe the attack was terror-related.
Additional reporting by agencies