PARIS — A teacher at a Catholic high school in a town in southwest France died on Wednesday after a 16-year-old student stabbed her, a spokesman for the French government, Olivier Véran, said.
A local prosecutor, Jérôme Bourrier, said his office had opened a homicide investigation and that the student, who was not previously known to the police, was in custody. His office ruled out any link to terrorism, he later said.
The deceased teacher, identified as Agnès Lassalle by local and national media and confirmed by a former colleague and student, had taught at the school for decades. She was strict and demanding but fair and caring, the student, Michel Hiribarren, who studied in her class for two years about a decade ago, said in an interview.
French politicians from all parties expressed horror and shock on social media, and two government ministers rushed to the town of Saint-Jean-de-Luz, near the Spanish border, to offer moral support.
“Today is an emotional moment and a moment of national solidarity,” said the country’s education minister, Pap Ndiaye, a former professor, adding that all schools across France would observe a minute of silence on Thursday. President Emmanuel Macron later tweeted that the killing filled the country with “intense emotion.”
“I share the pain of her family, her colleagues, her students, our teachers who dedicate their lives to transmitting knowledge to future generations,” the president said. “The nation is at your side.”
The attack touched a raw wound in the country that opened more than two years ago, when another teacher, Samuel Paty, was beheaded outside his school by an 18-year-old Chechen refugee and Islamist fanatic.
Mr. Paty, a history teacher in a northern suburb of Paris, had shown caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in his civics class to illustrate the right to blasphemy, free speech and freedom of conscience.
The repercussions of his killing continue to reverberate across France, with security and immigration now even more entrenched as central political issues. Mr. Paty became an emblem of the country’s ongoing struggle to uproot radical Islam.
Although no information about the student’s background was released and the education minister said it was too early to discern a motive, some right-wing figures commented on the event in political terms.
Eric Ciotti, the leader of the mainstream conservative party Les Republicains, tweeted that the country’s teachers were “on the front lines” of French society’s “ensauvagement” — a favored dog whistle of France’s far right that is used to imply that the nation is turning savage through immigration.
Saint-Jean-de-Luz is an upscale seaside town near the Spanish border and is historically known as the site of King Louis XIV’s wedding to his first wife, Maria Theresa of Spain. The population of 14,000 swells during summers with vacationers who come for the beaches, as well as Parisians who own vacation homes there.
“It’s totally shocking. It’s a town where not much happens,” Mr. Hiribarren, the former student, said.
The school, Saint Thomas d’Aquin, located in the town’s center, is known for its academic excellence, educating students beginning in the French equivalent of sixth grade.
“This is a dreadful tragedy that happened in a serene school with no particular record of violence or facts that could have predicted what we just witnessed,” said Mr. Ndiaye, the education minister.
Two students who rushed from the premises after witnessing the killing told the local South West newspaper that their teacher had been in the middle of a Spanish class when a fellow student stabbed her in the chest. She screamed, then went silent, they said.
Other students were confined to their classrooms for a number of hours before being slowly released to their parents, who were waiting outside, Agence France-Presse reported. A counseling team was dispatched to the school on Wednesday to tend to students and teachers, Mr. Ndiaye said.