To enjoy the full Mail & Guardian online experience: please upgrade your browser
29 May 2018 17:22
Mamoudou Gassama, 22, from Mali, leaves the Elysee Palace after his meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron (Reuters)
At the French migrant workers’ hostel where “Spiderman” Mamoudou Gassama was sleeping on a floor before becoming a folk hero for saving a child, his exploits have triggered a wave of pride tinged with envy.
This week television crews swarmed the centre in the eastern Paris suburb of Montreuil to find out more about the 22-year-old Malian who was captured on video scaling an apartment block to bring a child hanging from a balcony to safety.
Many residents were unaware the shy youth was living at the hostel and happy to see him hailed for his bravery by President Emmanuel Macron and being placed on a fast track to French citizenship.
“He lives here? It’s incredible,” said Adama Kone, a 35-year-old Mauritania native.
The all-male facility, which has an official capacity of 430 but houses many more, is part of a network of hostels built to accommodate a wave of migrant workers arriving from Africa starting in the 1960s.
On his arrival in France in September 2017 after travelling the Mediterranean migrant route, Gassama was given a mattress on the floor in a room occupied by his 54-year-old brother Birama and three relatives from his home village of Yaguine in western Mali.
READ MORE: Hero Malian who saved child to be given French citizenship
The modest room, furnished with just two bunk beds and a television placed on top of a fridge, was once occupied by Mamoudou’s father, according to Birama.
He was glued to the television on Monday as footage of Mamoudou meeting Macron in the gilded settings of the Elysee Palace was being played on a loop.
“As a foreigner I am really pleased,” he said.
“He could have fallen and died. He’s a true hero.”
Several residents of the hostel – home to migrants from Mali, Senegal and Mauritania – described a grim existence in France, under pressure to find work to support families at home who live off remittances.
The corridors of the shelter are cluttered with camp beds and cooking stoves, and window ledges act as larders.
Illegal migrants live in hope of eventually gaining the right to stay – hopes nourished by official statistics which show that in 2017 alone 30 000 were given residency.
But Macron on Monday reiterated he would abide by his tough stance on immigration.
Presenting his decision to naturalise Gassama as an “exceptional” move to honour an “exceptional act” he warned: “We cannot give (papers) to all those who come from Mali or Burkina Faso” – two countries from where thousands set out each year across the Mediterranean to Europe.
An estimated 300 000 immigrants are living illegally in France, according to the government.
“The president should regularise everyone,” said Mamoudou, a 26-year-old Malian who claimed to be a childhood friend of the “Spiderman”.
“We should be jealous of him,” he added, “to motivate ourselves to do something just as brave.”
But he was not hopeful of a rapid change in policy.
Like many young migrants he saw his only hope in pulling off an exceptional feat like that of Gassama or fellow Malian national Lassana Bathily, who was granted French citizenship for helping hide hostages during a jihadist attack in Paris in January 2015.
It took Galadio Diakite, a 50-year-old Malian still living in the hostel after three decades in France, 11 years to obtain residency.
Were it not for the solidarity in the Malian diaspora, one of the biggest African communities in France, Diakite said, “we’d be in a bad way”.
© Agence France-Presse
Myriam Lemétayer is a journalist with AFP. Read more from Myriam Lemétayer
Create Account | Lost Your Password?