Rokhaya Diallo is a writer, journalist, filmmaker and TV host for BET France. 

On Monday at Élysée Palace, French President Emmanuel Macron hosted Mamoudou Gassama, an 22-year-old undocumented immigrant from Mali who was the center of attention this week in France. Two days earlier, he became famous for scaling a building to save a child precariously dangling from the balcony of a Parisian apartment. A hero was born: He earned the title of “Spider-Man.”

Suddenly in France, a country in which speeches and policies hostile to immigration are legion, social media was buzzing with warm affection for this young man, pleading in favor of his naturalization. Popular opinion seemed to say, “He risked his life to save a French child, so he deserves to be one of us.” Spurred by this enthusiasm, within two days of the incident, Macron met Gassama and granted him a path to French citizenship. Gassama has now secured a job with the Paris fire department.

While one can rejoice that Gassama’s courage has been honored, the contrast between the new life of one undocumented man and the harsh daily lives of thousands of migrants in France is striking.

A bill “for controlled immigration and a right to effective asylum” which was adopted by the French National Assembly in April, has received the least amount of support of all bills adopted since Macron’s election. Described as a “dramatic regression” by immigration historian Patrick Weil, this bill is even considered controversial among the current ruling majority. Weil said that “since the Second World War, no ruling majority [in France] has dared to go this far.”

Recall that during Macron’s visit to the United States in April, President Trump expressed his admiration for his French counterpart’s leadership in the face of the “challenges” of “uncontrolled migration.”

Among other things, the bill aims to shorten the asylum application period, reducing it from 120 days to 90 days. This period is deemed too short by Défenseur des Droits, the governmental body responsible for guaranteeing the protection of human rights. Applicants face many hardships, and the administrative red tape makes getting appointments with the asylum application office difficult, leading to delays that can last weeks. The bill also doubles the maximum duration of the detention of foreigners awaiting deportation from 45 days to 90 days.

Amnesty International has denounced the provisions of the bill, saying they endanger the rights of refugees and migrants in France.

Gassama arrived in France via the Italian border after a harrowing journey. He left Mali for Burkina Faso, and then continued on to Niger before arriving in Libya. There, he boarded one of the boats that migrants crowd onto — all too often endangering their very existence — to cross the Mediterranean and ultimately reach the Italian coast. Gassama remembers this water crossing as “terrifying.” Today, he lives just outside Paris in communal migrant housing in Montreuil. Until now, he led the same precarious existence as the many migrants with irregular immigration status living in France.

If he had not heroically rescued the 4-year-old on Saturday, Gassama would no doubt still be one of those migrants who would do anything to avoid the menace of police hunts — keeping a low profile, trying to be invisible so as to not be noticed — as a single arrest would wipe out the years of efforts and sacrifices made just to be able to get to France. In early May, the name of another migrant lit up social media with the hashtag #LibérezMoussa (#FreeMoussa). Moussa Camara is a 28-year-old Guinean homosexual man who fled his country in 2015 after his ex-boyfriend was burned alive in front of him. The rejection of his asylum request in France exposes him to possible deportation and an unacceptable risk of persecution in Guinea.

While Gassama is hailed for his unusual courage, French citizens are regularly arrested because they have helped struggling migrants. This is the case for farmer Cédric Herrou, who was sentenced on appeal in August 2017 to a suspended four-month prison term for providing help to migrants.

While migrants arduously crossed the border from Italy into France, facing the cold and snowy mountains — sometimes without shoes — far-right groups collectively known as Defend Europe met up in April in the Alps to block their arrival. These groups, who had openly racist slogans and whose actions the French interior minister has described as simple “posturing,” did not meet any formal resistance. Rather, it was a spontaneous procession of people — in solidarity with the migrants and in opposition to the Defend Europe groups — that ended up facing law enforcement agencies. Three people who showed such solidarity were placed in police custody and detained for nine days in Marseille before being prosecuted on charges of “assisting the entry of illegal immigrants as part of an organized group.” Their trial is scheduled to take place in the coming days; they face up to 10-year prison sentences and fines of up to 750,000 euros (about $875,000).

Macron has pulled off quite the communications coup by giving international visibility to his symbolic coronation of Gassama. This is the paradox of France. While the nation elevates an undocumented hero, it is also pursuing harsh measures against immigration and seeking to punish those who try to provide support to migrant people. Migrants shouldn’t need to be superheroes to be acceptable in France.

(English translation by Tristane Theisen)

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