BERLIN – Mamoudou Gassama, the Spider-Man of Paris who saved a 4-year-old boy by climbing to a fourth-floor balcony, is pretty much the worst kind of immigrant as far as European populists — and, indeed, European governments — are concerned.
He is a 22-year-old Muslim male from the southwest of Mali. A civil conflict smolders in the country’s north, but that wouldn’t qualify him for refugee status. He’s rural, uneducated and unqualified. He arrived in France illegally and he has spent months there as an undetected economic migrant of the kind construction bosses like.
Gassama is just the kind of person France and other European Union countries want to discourage from coming; he has done the kind of work the government would like to exterminate. Yet, thanks to his feat and a viral video of it, he has now met President Emmanuel Macron, received a medal, residence papers, the promise of French citizenship and a firefighter job offer.
He’s not alone in winning the lottery by doing something admirable. From time to time, France grants papers to immigrant heroes — someone who has saved hostages from a terrorist, club-goers from a shooter or neighbors from a raging fire. It’s reasonable on a certain level: If France is about a set of values and ideals, then people who demonstrate adherence to them should be recognized as French. There aren’t, however, enough 4-year-olds hanging off balconies for all the hopeful young people who take the same route to Europe as Gassama.
People who take the perilous immigrant routes face hostility at every step of the way. The human traffickers are the only people who want them, and then only if they have money. They get beaten, sometimes enslaved, pushed back, returned to the home countries that don’t want them either and can’t provide them with work. Those who make the journey are often extremely resourceful people. In fact, once they reach their destination, they become an important resource for their country of origin. For Mali, remittances, providing 7 percent of its gross domestic product, are the second biggest source of revenue after the export of gold.
Last month, France passed new immigration laws that make it easier to deport people with Gassama’s profile and harder for them to appeal expulsion decisions. That’s a mistake. I don’t question the need for the obstacle courses designed to deter the undocumented migrant: Making things easy for them would be unfair to the many who follow a regular process. But those who overcome the obstacles deserve recognition for their near-gladiatorial achievement. Not medals like the one Macron gave Gassama, but a clear path to legal residency, a decent job, a place to live.
Criminals, slackers, religious fanatics and everyone else who turns off this path — though not those who simply cannot prove they’re in mortal danger in their country of origin — should be the ones facing a speedy deportation. The rest, those for whom the journey to a better life continues after they arrive at their geographic destination, should be given a chance.
In addition to his courage and his impressive physique, Gassama had plenty of luck, thanks to the gawkers who filmed his feat. It’s a job for smart governments to take luck out of the equation. They’ll be repaid with a lot of hard work and with better-integrated immigrant communities.
Based in Berlin, Russian writer Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist.