Last Saturday, in the poor immigrant area of Goutte d’Or in Paris, Mamoudou Gassama, an undocumented immigrant from Mali, rescued a toddler who was about to fall from a fourth floor balcony. His superhuman feat of scaling the building to save the boy went viral, earning him the name of “Spider-Man”.
This act of bravery by a black Muslim immigrant has provoked a political row about immigration in France. Gassama’s story dominated the headlines while French lawmakers were debating a controversial bill to speed up deportation of economic migrants and failed asylum seekers.
The president of Mali, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, hailed Gassama’s heroism. By Monday, president Emmanuel Macron had invited the 22-year-old to the Élysée Palace. Gassama wore a short-sleeved shirt and jeans, but even without formal clothes he acted with gravitas and dignity. He was promised French citizenship as well as a job with the fire service.
This token gesture of goodwill by Macron harks back to former president François Hollande’s award of French citizenship to another Malian Muslim in 2015, Lassana Bathily, who risked his own life to rescue six people from being murdered during a terrorist attack at the kosher supermarket where he worked.
These true and uplifting tales of superheroes are much needed in a world where villains have come to dominate. But both stories begin elsewhere, with traumatic difficulties faced by men who were hardly out of adolescence when they left home in search of better lives.
On French radio, Gassama described having left Mali a long time ago, travelling through Niger, Burkina Faso, Libya. He then made a dangerous journey to Europe, on a packed, precarious boat across the Mediterranean, finally arriving in Italy. Knowing what we now know about the horrific conditions of African migrants in Libya, and the venal traffickers involved, we were touched by his terse and halting French as he described the journey.
Gassama has been working illegally in construction since he arrived in France. Whatever the far right says, the fact is that France, with its ageing population, does need immigrants to prop up its work force. Africans from Mali, Senegal and the Ivory Coast work in construction, as cleaners at train stations, rubbish collectors, taxi drivers, kitchen and hospital porters. They do the jobs that French people no longer want to do.
Many illegal workers do pay taxes, but nevertheless have to put up with the exploitation of very low pay and no job security. Most of them live in substandard housing. Even so, they still send what little they can save to support families in their countries of origin. That is what makes them superheroes – as they rescue parents and siblings who otherwise would have nothing to live on.
France and Mali, a francophone country, are joined by a long colonial history. This is the main reason there is a large Malian community in France. But the military connection is more recent. In January 2013, France launched air strikes against extremist Islamists in its former colony, in order to liberate the country from the extremists’ control.
When Emmanuel Macron was elected last year, everyone had hopes that he could unite France. Quite the contrary: he has taken a tough line on both economic migrants fleeing poverty as well as refugees escaping war. At the press conference immediately after his meeting with Gassama, Macron warned that he would not be handing out papers to all Malian immigrants.
But the president of the Malian Association of Expellees said it should not take such an exceptional act to obtain citizenship, for which young Africans sometimes can wait for more than 15 years.
“We must not have to wait to save a Frenchman to become naturalised as a French citizen,” said Ousmane Diarra, calling for a change of European policy on migration, and of French policy in particular.
Most Africans in France who are, as we say, “sans papiers” must be proud of Mamoudou Gassama but they must also feel excluded from his victory. They must wonder who is there to save them, if they don’t save one of us first.