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Scaling a Paris apartment building with his bare hands to rescue a four-year-old child dangling frighteningly from a fourth-floor balcony was actually the easiest feat for Mamoudou Gassama to perform to get fast-tracked for French citizenship.

After all, before his stunning feat of strength and bravery on Saturday, the 22-year-old migrant from Mali had spent most of the previous five years crossing deserts and the Mediterranean Sea in a quest to join his brother in the promised land – in this case, the crime-ridden Paris suburb where he shared a room in a flop house with seven other undocumented African migrants.

Getting through Libya, where migrants must dodge enslavement to reach the Mediterranean, sounds much harder than climbing a Paris balcony. “They trapped us, hit us, but I never gave up,” Mr. Gassama told Le Figaro newspaper on Monday, just after leaving France’s Élysée Palace, where President Emmanuel Macron rewarded him for Saturday’s “exceptional act” with a promise of a legal residency, a path to citizenship and a job with the Paris fire department.

Mr. Macron was accused of shamelessly exploiting Mr. Gassama’s sudden celebrity for political gain, although the President would have faced even harsher criticism had he chosen to treat Mr. Gassama like any other undocumented migrant. What has stuck, however, are the charges of hypocrisy leveled against Mr. Macron’s government, which last month adopted tougher measures to deal with the thousands of mostly African migrants who have set up make-shift camps in French cities or filled temporary shelters.

Mamoudou Gassama, a Malian migrant, received a certificate of bravery and dedication and a medal from the French President Macron after he saved a child hanging from a ledge.


The legislation, which passed France’s National Assembly last month and is awaiting approval by the French Senate, requires migrants to file an official asylum claim within 90 days of their arrival in the country. Those who fail to comply would face immediate deportation. Deportation orders would also be easier to execute under the new law.

Most economic migrants in France do not formally seek asylum because their claims would be rejected, anyway. It is unclear whether Mr. Gassama fell into this category, but his flop-house roommates told Le Figaro that he had been working under the table in construction before Saturday’s act of heroism thrust him into the global spotlight.

The most recent migrants in France sleep in tents in parks and other public spaces and, on Wednesday, none of them were considered exceptional as police cleared the largest such encampment along the Canal Saint-Denis in Paris. About 1,500 migrants were steered to temporary shelters in the suburbs. Most will likely never file an asylum claim, but live in the shadows, working in the underground economy or not at all.

This is the kind of future Mr. Gassama might have faced had fate not put him in the right place, at the right time. The man now known as the Spiderman of the 18th Arrondissement was a good distance from his flop house, in the neighbourhood where his girlfriend lived. He was on his way to watch a soccer championship on TV at a local bar.

Now, he is a hero whose personal journey has served to humanize the plight of migrants everywhere. As Mr. Gassama showed, every one of them has a story to tell, talents to develop and equal value as a human being. Mr. Gassama’s extraordinary physical prowess may have set him apart, but luck also played a role. Most migrants in France and other European countries will never get the same chance he got.

Just last week, Benjamin Griveaux, a spokesman for Prime Minister Édouard Philippe, issued an ultimatum to left-leaning Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo warning her to order police to dismantle the migrant camps once and for all. “For years, we have experienced a situation that … is absolutely intolerable for any normal citizen and particularly Parisians who are exposed” to the migrant camps, he said. The warning appears to have worked. It was on Ms. Hidalgo’s order that the largest camp was cleared on Wednesday and the mayor was on-site to inspect the operation.

For every Mamoudou Gassama, there are thousands more migrants who will never be deemed as worthy in the eyes of the French state. That is why his story is at once uplifting and heartbreaking. “We can’t give [papers] to all those who come from Mali or Burkina [Faso],” Mr. Macron told Mr. Gassama. “When they are in danger, we grant asylum. But not for economic reasons. But as far as you’re concerned, you did something exceptional.”

Really though, what migrant hasn’t?

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