A Malian migrant who scaled a four-storey Paris apartment bloc with his bare hands to save a child was honoured by French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday and offered citizenship.
Two days after his daring Spiderman-style rescue — viewed millions of times online — Mamoudou Gassama was received by Macron at the presidential palace.
“You have become an example because millions of people have seen you. It is only right that the nation be grateful,” Macron told the 22-year-old, adding that his immigration status would be “put in order.”
During the meeting, Macron also proposed that Gassama, who received a medal and certificate for bravery, join the French fire service.
“I was not thinking of anything. I went straight up,” the sporty youth, who wore jeans and a short-sleeved patterned shirt, explained.
“Bravo,” Macron replied.
The act of heroism, which was the top news item for most French websites and television channels, comes as French lawmakers debate a controversial bill that would speed up the deportation of economic migrants and failed asylum-seekers.
Gassama has been living illegally in France and working in construction after arriving in the country in September last year following a perilous journey from his homeland to Libya then Italy.
Macron, a centrist, has taken a tough line on economic migrants fleeing poverty rather than refugees escaping war or persecution.
But Gassama’s “exceptional act of heroism” warranted an “exceptional decision”, he said Monday.
Gassama leaped into action Saturday evening on seeing a four-year-old child dangling in mid-air from a balcony half-way up an apartment block in the multi-ethnic 18th district of the French capital.
The video shows him pulling himself up from balcony to balcony as a man on the fourth floor tries to hold on to the child by leaning across from a neighbouring balcony.
Firefighters arrived at the scene to find the child, whose parents were not at home, had already been rescued.
A shy figure who was accompanied to the Elysee Palace by his older brother, Gassama said he had acted instinctively.
“I saved the child and then went inside the building and I was shaking,” he told Macron.
Reacting to his awards he said later: “I’m pleased because it’s the first time I’ve received a trophy like that.”
– ‘Incredibly brave act’ –
Gassama’s story instantly drew comparisons with that of another Malian migrant who was feted as a hero, and given citizenship, for helping save lives during a January 2015 terror attack.
Lassana Bathily helped hide hostages in the freezer during a jihadist attack on a Jewish supermarket in Paris, in which four people were killed.
On Sunday, government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux backed calls by anti-discrimination group SOS Racisme for Gassama to be given the same recognition as Bathily, citing his “incredibly brave act”.
Confirming to Gassama that he would be made a French citizen, Macron said: “Even if you did not think about what you were doing it was an act of courage and strength that won the admiration of all.”
But in a warning to other African migrants he said he “can not give (papers) to all those who come from Mali or Burkina Faso” — two of the countries from where thousands of migrants set out each year for Europe on a perilous journey across the desert and Mediterranean Sea.
Across the political spectrum his decision to confer citizenship on Gassama met with approval.
A senior member of the anti-immigration National Front, Nicolas Bay, said however that while the party supported Gassama receiving French papers all other illegal migrants should be summarily deported.
– Dreams of a better life –
Passersby raised the alarm Saturday on noticing the little boy hanging in mid-air.
“Luckily, there was someone who was physically fit and who had the courage to go and get the child,” a spokesman for the fire service said.
The boy’s father, who had reportedly gone out to the shop, has been taken into custody for leaving the child unattended.
He is to be brought before prosecutors on Monday.
The boy’s mother was not in Paris at the time of the incident.
The child has been placed in state care.
The Socialist mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, was among the politicians who lined up to phone Gassama to thank him for his selfless act.
“He explained to me that he had arrived from Mali a few months ago dreaming of building his life here,” she said.
On Monday, he was made a honorary citizen of the eastern suburb of Montreuil, where he has been living in a hostel for migrants.