The Spider-Man of Paris Is Just One of Many

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Mamoudou Gassama, the Spider-Man of Paris who saved a four-year-old boy by climbing spectacularly 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, after sailing to Italy from Libya, likely assisted by that country’s people traffickers. He has spent months in France as an undetected economic migrant of the kind construction bosses like. He’s worked for cash on construction sites and slept on a mattress between two bunk beds in a 160 square foot room in Montreuil, a Paris suburb, or banlieu, that’s home to up to 10,000 other immigrants from Mali, out of some 76,700 natives of that country who live in France, according to the United Nations. Parts of Montreuil have a reputation as no-go zones.

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; he’s lived in a place the government would have preferred not to have to deal with. Yet, thanks to his feat and a viral video of it, he has now met French President Emmanuel Macron (wearing what looked like his only pair of jeans), received a medal, French residence papers, a job offer from the Paris firefighters and the promise of French citizenship. 

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 four-year-olds hanging off balconies for all the hopeful young people who take the same route to Europe as Gassama. And that’s an enormous waste of climbing skills. Would-be immigrants regularly scaled the head-spinningly high fence in the Spanish exclave of Melilla until the EU got Morocco to discourage them from trying it. They have climbed the border fence in Macedonia.

In the U.S., too, undocumented immigrants regularly scale the border wall. When I was in Brownsville, Texas during the 2016 presidential campaign, a local activist told me the record for climbing the local section of the fence was eight seconds; whoever set it could easily have done what Gassama did.

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. According to the World Bank, some $245 million a year of these remittances comes from France. These people don’t save kids every day, but they do perform little daily heroic acts for their current and future families.

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.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.