An undocumented Malian immigrant's heroic feat of saving a 4-year-old on the evening of 26 May 2018 in Paris’ 18th arrondissement has taken France by storm and highlighted the difficult situation many “sans-papiers” (those without papers) face.
Mamadou Gassama, 22, saw the young boy as he was hanging from the guardrail of a fourth-floor balcony, having fallen from the floor above. A neighbour was standing by, unable to reach the child due to the dividing wall between the two apartments. Gassama then scaled the building's balconies in 30 seconds, grabbed the child and passed him to the neighbour.
Gassama told his own account of what happened in subsequent interviews (via Brut Magazine):
Beaucoup de personnes sont en train de crier…mais je n'ai regardé personne, j'ai couru, j'ai traversé la route. C'est ma première fois [escalader un immeuble], Je n'ai pas pensé à ça [qu'il risquait sa propre vie], j'ai juste pensé à l'enfant, j'ai voulu le sauver.
A lot of people were shouting. I didn't look at anyone, I ran and followed the route. It was my first time [climbing a building], I didn't think about [how I was risking my own life]. I just thought about the child, I wanted to save him.
Some bystanders filmed the scene with their mobile phones. Several amateur videos have been uploaded online, the first of which reached 547,000 views, 739 comments and 3,600 likes within two days. That video was later taken down for copyright reasons as several people claimed its ownership. However, the following video is still online:
The child had been left alone in the apartment by his father, who had gone shopping and had been held up on his way home. The father was taken to court the next day.
Gassama was invited to the Elysée by French President Emmanuel Macron, who awarded him with a diploma and a medal for his heroic courage. Macron also announced that Gassama's immigration situation would be regularised immediately, and that he would be given a job at the Paris fire brigade. Furthermore, Macron invited Gassama to apply for citizenship.
The story has made headlines in French and foreign media channels and continues to be widely discussed on social networks. The television and radio site France Info has published and regularly updates a complete collection of articles on the different aspects of the feat.
The hashtag #MamadouGassama began trending on Twitter on 28 May, and has collected many reflections on the complexities and simplifications of the issue of asylum seekers and “economic migrants” in France.
‘I'm happy for #Mamoudou Gassama but I weep for my continent’
In Mali, although a peace deal was signed in 2015, the conflict in the northern region continues to negatively affect the country. Political strife and the strengthened presence of Islamist armed groups are the main causes of the ever-present volatility and violence.
As such, folks like Gassama continue to leave Mali to escape the situation in the hope of providing a secure future for their families.
Once news of his action to save the child spread, the first reactions in Gassama's home country were to celebrate the Malian “Spider-Man”:
— kunafoni.com (@ikunafoni) May 31, 2018
#Mali??: The highest honour for Mamoudou Gassama, the Spiderman ?? of #Paris?
There was also a mixture of pride and regret for all the talent that Africa has lost:
Heureuse pour #Mamoudou Gassama mais je pleure pour mon continent.
Combien de héros a t’on perdu, désespérés,tournant le dos?
Combien de talents à qui on n’a pas permis de naître sont allés périr en mer?
Combien de forces,de cerveaux a t’on laissé partir bâtir d’autres nations?
— Dr Djamila Ferdjani (@DjamilaF) May 28, 2018
I'm happy for #Mamoudou Gassama but I weep for my continent.
How many heroes have been lost to you, turning their backs because they were desperate?
How many talents which we didn't nurture have left to perish at sea?
How strength and how many brilliant minds have left you in favour of other nations?
Outrage directed at African leaders was also not far behind:
L’Ambassadeur du Mali en France reçoit Mr Mamadou Gassama au Consulat: “Toutes nos félicitations, vous faites la fierté du Mali”
La honte n’existe pas chez les dirigeants Africains!!! Il peut même dire que c’est grâce à lui que tu es arrivé en France…#MamoudouGassama pic.twitter.com/2yYw2t1sSV
— Mrs M (@MrsScotty_M) May 28, 2018
The Malian Ambassador to France recieves Mr Mamadou at the Consulate: “Congratulations, you are the pride of Mali”
African leaders feel no shame!!! He could just as well say that it's thanks to him that you've come to France…
‘Can we imagine [a France where] it isn't necessary for a migrant to save a child to be treated with dignity?’
Around 1,000 asylum-seekers and migrants are sleeping on the streets of Paris, mainly scattered across the north-east of the city and in the borough of Seine-Saint-Denis. The situation has become considerably more difficult for migrants in Paris since the destruction of camps in mid-August, where more than 2,700 people were living around Porte de la Chapelle. Since then, they have been constantly moved on and hassled at night by authorities.
On April 23, the French National Assembly passed the first reading of a controversial new asylum and immigration bill that would make the process of seeking asylum stricter and enforce the expulsions of men and women whose refugee status had been denied.
The conversation surrounding Gassama's feat often pointed out this context. Le Monde Afrique explored the question in a French-language video: “Mamoudou Gassama, a Malian hero for how many undocumented immigrants?”
Some highlighted the ill treatment that migrants and their allies receive:
Peut-on imaginer que la France devienne ce pays où
✅ il ne serait pas nécessaire à un migrant de sauver un enfant pour être traité avec dignité ?
✅ celui qui sauve un migrant en Méditerranée, au col de l'Echelle ou ailleurs ne serait plus perçu comme un délinquant ? pic.twitter.com/nAScJmnbuS
— Maxime Combes (@MaximCombes) May 29, 2018
Can we imagine that France will become a country where
✅ it isn't necessary for a migrant to save a child to be treated with dignity?
✅ someone who saves a migrant in the Mediterranean, Col de l'Échelle or elsewhere isn't seen as a delinquent?
Others called out how authorities were using the case to cast themselves in a positive light:
La com a l'état pur. @EmmanuelMacron reçoit #MamoudouGassama le migrant héroïque. Pendant ce temps, sa police continuera de pourchasser tous ses frères d'infortune et de harceler les #solidaires qui leur viennent en aide. Sinistre et immorale comédie d'un pouvoir sans principes.
— Esther Benbassa (@EstherBenbassa) May 28, 2018
Empty PR move. @EmmanuelMacron receives #MamoudouGassama, the hero migrant. At the same time, his police force will continue to pursue all of his unfortunate brothers and to harass the allies who come to their aid. A sinister and immoral comedy of power without principles.
Outside of France, a Dutch caricaturist compared a “good” and “bad” migrant:
— Le HuffPost (@LeHuffPost) May 30, 2018
A good or bad migrant? The @Royaards press artist tells us how this drawing “aims to highlight the hypocrisy of Europeans”
From the anti-migrants side, conspiracy insinuations gathered under the hashtag #mamoudoufake in particular. However, they were quickly debunked. While some suggested that young Malian should enlist in the Malian army to fight the jihadists, other far-right personalities or ordinary citizens expressed bitterness at the outcome of the situation:
Le bourrage de crâne médiatique généralisé sur les vertus supposées positives de l’immigration, en exploitant le courage de #MamoudouGassama est vraiment indécent.
— Thierry MARIANI ن (@ThierryMARIANI) 28 mai 2018
The widespread media brainwash of the supposedly positive virtues of immigration, exploiting the courage of #MamoudouGassama is really indecent.
Selective empathy for migrants
What will happen when the media attention wanes?
Gassama isn't the first person to be regularised in France for an outstanding act of bravery. Mohssen Oukassi was an undocumented Tunisian migrant who was regularised after saving several people from a fire in 2014. But Oukassi's pathway to citizenship has stalled, he faces a lack of support for health issues from the fire, and finds himself unemployed.
Satire site Le Gorafi summarised the current situation:
Flash : Dans un communiqué, le ministère de l'intérieur rappelle que la fin de la période d'empathie envers les sans-papiers prendra fin aujourd'hui, à midi.
— Le Gorafi (@le_gorafi) May 29, 2018
Breaking news: the Minister of the Interior reminds us in a letter that the time for empathy towards undocumented immigrants will end today at midday.
Coupable d’avoir régularisé le sans-papiers Mamoudou Gassama, le président de la République a été mis en examen pour délit de solidarité.
« La loi c’est la loi. Aider un sans-papiers en France est un délit. Qu’on soit président ou pas. M. Macron doit assumer la gravité de ses actes. Que les Français soient rassurés, ce hors-la-loi est désormais entre les mains de la police » nous déclare solennellement le ministre de l’intérieur, Gérard Collomb.
Guilty of having regularised undocumented immigrant Mamoudou Gassama, the President of France is under investigation for a crime of solidarity.
“The law is the law. Helping an undocumented immigrant is illegal in France, whether you're the president or not. Rest assured, this unlawful act is now in the hands of the police”, Minister of the Interior Gérard Collomb solemnly announces.
For another take on this topic from Global Voices, please read: From zero to superhero.