It’s a story that has captivated many since it first broke over the May bank holiday weekend when a young Malian man rescued a young child dangling from the balcony of a four-story building in Paris. Despite the fact that he would be risking his life to the fullest, Mamoudou Gassama acted on instinct and scaled the side of the building to save the young child’s life. Since the incident, Gassama has been hailed a national hero in France and received an invitation from President Emmanuel Macron to the presidential palace, where he was promised French citizenship and a job with the fire service due to his act of heroism. It’s been great to see the celebrations and praise Gassama has received for his actions, but I can’t help but feel a slight sadness as what might seem like an extraordinary turn of events for this man, clearly highlights the injustices of the French immigration system.
Mamoudou Gassama is just one of many individuals in recent years that have made the dangerous journey across the Sahara Desert and the Mediterranean Sea from Africa, in the hopes of pursuing a better life due to conflict or economic instability in their homeland. Since 2014, he has lived in France without the right papers to work or live legally in the country. That is until now. While his French citizenship is a “reward” for his selfless act, it really is ingrained in the French immigration system that a fast-track naturalisation procedure can be given to anyone who has “performed exceptional services for France, or whose naturalisation would be of exceptional interest for France.” So all it took for Mamoudou Gassama to have the legal right to stay in France was to risk his life and be dubbed the “French Spiderman”.
In 2015, following a hostage situation at a kosher supermarket in Paris, Lassana Bathily, a Malian man led others to safety away from the gunman. For his bravery, he was also awarded French citizenship. So this recent incident is not a standalone event and in fact a well-practised part of the French civil code. But the timing is somewhat ironic as just days before, President Macron had instructed the forced closure of several makeshift camps in Paris, which left more than 2,500 people homeless. Furthermore, his government is currently in the process of imposing a bill which proposes a harsher immigration procedure.
British MP David Lammy tweeted: “I don’t think that ‘migrants’ should have to behave like superheroes before they are treated like human beings. Being a human being should be the only prerequisite to being treated like a human being. And that applies in the UK just as much as France.” This response mirrors my own thoughts on how the French immigration system can be at times harsh to those seeking refuge in France and how many of its social policies targets members of the immigrant community unfairly. Former French colonies, like Mali, still play a significant role in French national life as France maintains a dominant economic, cultural, and political presence and holds on to its ties with many of these African nations despite a tragic history of colonisation. Nonetheless, the relationship between France and the continent doesn’t seem to hold much weight with regards to the treatment of immigrants, such as those that were once living in the refugee camps in Calais.
Coming from an immigrant background myself, I know all too well that families who come to the West in the pursuit of better prospects have to work even harder to prove themselves in a system that is systemically built against us. But why do we consistently have to go above and beyond to just be respected and treated with the same regard as those whose ancestral backgrounds are rooted here? We shouldn’t have to risk our lives, jumping up high rise buildings or combatting terrorists defenceless to be considered as a citizen.
But in order to be valued and seen worthy in the eyes of the French authorities, do all immigrants have to now possess superhero-like qualities for the attitudes towards them to change? So it seems – being smart and talented aren’t enough, but instead, you have to pull off something “exceptional” and fit the idea of the “good immigrant”. While I’m glad that the likes of the men mentioned above are no longer living in fear due to their legal status in France and are being celebrated for their heroic acts, I do hope that in time that the narrative around immigration and immigrants in France changes. Gaining French citizenship shouldn’t be considered a “prize” as it only further perpetuates the idea that immigrants should be grateful for being given the right to stay in the country. But let’s just hope that climbing up high rise buildings don’t become the new standard by which citizenship is granted.
Written by Aisha Rimi