Mamadou Gassama, the man filmed climbing up the outside of a Paris apartment block to save a child dangling from a fourth-floor balcony, is a hero. It goes without saying that he deserves every bit of praise for his bravery.
But there is something unsettling about his summons to the Elysée Palace to be hailed by French President Emmanuel Macron. Because Gassama also happens to be from Mali and, at the time of his dramatic ‘Spider-Man’ rescue, was living in France without legal status.
One fact is incidental to the other – except that by leaving his war-torn, impoverished homeland, possibly forever, to go to an unfamiliar place without secure means of support, Gassama already revealed his bravery.
Moving country to make a better life is a human right, enshrined in the UN’s Universal Declaration. Gassama already earned his chance to live as a member of society. It can’t be handed to him as a prize, or worse, used as a photo opportunity by a government whose policies would, under different circumstances, deny him that same right.
The reality in France, the UK, USA and many other places is that most people like Gassama will encounter racism and exclusion rather than a call to heroism in front of an audience with smartphones. The arbitrariness of it all would be farcical if it wasn’t cruel. The fact he is reportedly being offered a job with the Sapeurs Pompiers de Paris, the French capital’s famous military fire brigade, underlines the absurdity: here is potential that any society would want, only fulfilled because a child climbed over a balcony railing.
Rather than offering an occasion for self-congratulation, Gassama’s story should, like the Windrush scandal, warn against shifting the line been ‘good’ and ‘bad’ migrants. Because if being a superhero is the threshold for migrant virtue, it’s clear who the villains are.