‘I didn’t think twice, I just climbed up’, says Malian migrant who saved boy – video
As an undocumented migrant in France, Mamoudou Gassama knew it was best to keep his head down, to not draw attention to himself.
But when he spotted a young child dangling from the balcony of a fourth-floor Paris flat he felt he had to act.
In that split second, Gassama, 22, did not think of himself or the threat of discovery and deportation back to Mali.
Instead, in an extraordinary feat of strength and bravery that has earned him the nickname “Le Spider-Man”, he pulled himself up from balcony to balcony, before lifting the crying four-year-old to safety.
On Monday, after the video footage went viral and Gassama was hailed a hero, attention quickly turned to his status as one of the country’s many migrants sans papiers (without papers), who have no official access to housing or jobs, and no right to remain in France.
Far from being thrown out of France, however, Gassama found himself sitting with President Emmanuel Macron at the Élysée Palace.
He was promised documents allowing him to stay, and a fast-track process to gain French nationality. He was also offered a job with the Paris sapeurs pompiers, the city’s fire and emergency service.
Macron gave Gassama a medal for an act of “bravery and devotion”, signed by the police prefect and declaring the French Republic’s gratitude.
Filmed in the gilded reception room of the palace, Gassama hesitantly described seeing the child hanging on to the balcony railing at around 8pm on Saturday when he was on his way out. He had acted “without thinking”, he said.
“There were people shouting and honking their horns … I didn’t think of anything, I ran across the road directly to save him. Thank God I saved him.”
He said he only realized what he had done after he hauled the child to safety.
“My legs went wobbly when I got inside the flat,” he said.
“Bravo,” Macron replied.
Gassama, who has nine brothers and sisters, told BFM TV that when he had the child in his arms he asked: “why did you do that?”. But the child did not say anything. Gassama said he only fully realized what he had done when he was in the apartment, looking down.
Gassama was accompanied to the palace by his brother Diaby. Asked if he had anything to say to the president, Gassama seemed overwhelmed, so Diaby replied: “We want to be officialized. We have no papers but we want them so we can work in good conditions and we need homes.”
Diaby said his brother was living in temporary housing. “It’s a bad situation but we live with it. We will take the opportunity to ask [the president] for this.”
Afterward, faced with a barrage of television cameras and journalists, Gassama seemed lost for words.
“He gave me a present,” he said of Macron. “It’s the first time I’ve had anything like this. I’m very happy.”
Macron tweeted that in recognition of Gassama’s “heroic act”, his status in France would be made official with a carte de séjour (residency card) “as quickly as possible”. The president also invited Gassama – who has been living without official papers in Paris since he arrived from Mali in September – to put in a request for naturalization.
The interior minister, Gérard Collomb, confirmed that he would personally ensure Gassama’s request would be accepted.
The government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux tweeted: “This act of immense bravery, faithful to the values of solidarity of our republic, should open the door to him to our national community.”
The city’s mayor, Anne Hidalgo, and her deputies vowed to help the young man in his attempts to remain in France.
In the footage recorded from the street, a man and woman in the neighboring flat can be seen spotting the boy from their balcony. The man grabs the child’s right arm but appears unable to pull him to safety because of a dividing wall between the balconies.
Gassama said he asked the child how he came to be hanging from the balcony in the 18th arrondissement in the north of Paris.
“He didn’t answer. I asked where his mother was and he said she had gone to a party,” he told journalists.
The father of the child was detained overnight for alleged parental neglect, and is to appear in court in September. Police said the child’s mother was not in Paris at the time of the incident and the boy was now in the care of social services.
On Monday, the deputy president of the far-right Front National, Nicolas Bay, sounded a more cynical note about Gassama’s residency status. “If you tell me, we’ll make that one official because of his act of bravery and we’ll expel all the others’, I’ll sign up to that,” Bay told France 2 television.
Only a handful of undocumented migrants have their status regularised in France for acts of public service or “exceptional talent”. In 2015, Lassana Bathily, also from Mali, was given asylum after helping hostages taken by the terrorist Amedy Coulibaly at the Hyper-Cacher supermarket, and assisting police and special forces to end the siege.
The French documentary maker and commentator Raphaël Glucksmann wrote on his Facebook page: “Like everyone else, I admire the bravery of Mamoudou Gassama. But I dream of a country where it won’t be necessary to put one’s own life at risk scaling a building to save the life of a child in order to be treated like a human being when one is a migrant.”