Did you hear the one about an African immigrant climbing four balconies in 30 seconds with his bare hands to earn French citizenship? That is putting things at their most cynical but stay with me on this one. Over the weekend, Malian immigrant Mamoudou Gassama climbed four balconies of a Paris block to save a small boy hanging on a fourth-floor balcony. It was a truly remarkable act risking his own life to save that of another.
Mamoudou Gassama only arrived in France in September 2017, one of the thousands of illegal immigrants risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean by boat. Living in France illegally for the past eight months and only possessing documents to work in Italy, the 22-year old Malian has now been offered French citizenship, a medal for bravery and a job with the French fire service. A government spokesman said Gassama’s actions were true to the values of the Republic and therefore warranted the offer of citizenship.
Ordinarily, people have to live in France for at least five years, or less in certain circumstances, to gain French citizenship. As recently as April 2018, France passed tough immigration laws shortening deadlines for asylum applications, doubling detention times for illegal migrants and bringing in a one-year prison term for entering France illegally. Gassama would have been caught out under these rules. In his case however, the laws were swept aside to grant Gassama citizenship as a recognition of his commendable acts. But equally commendable are the acts of countless African immigrants who risk their lives to cross the Mediterranean to Europe for the chance to perform a worthy act. What this episode reveals is the ease with which seemingly tough laws can be circumvented for political expediency in the face of public opinion.
According to media reports, this is the second time the government of France has granted citizenship to a Malian immigrant under similar circumstances. In 2015, a Malian immigrant was granted citizenship after he assisted Jewish hostages fleeing an extremist attack in a supermarket. The episode is also reminiscent of the Windrush scandal in the UK where supposedly tough immigration requirements have been placed to one side in the face of public pressure to recognise the contributions of Windrush immigrants. Extortionate costs have been waived and procedures expedited to quickly settle the citizenship applications of the Windrush generation.
What these episodes do is challenge Western perceptions of immigrants, particularly those crossing borders illegally and how easy it should be for them to gain citizenship. They illustrate that under the right circumstances most immigrants, legal or illegal, can make meaningful contributions to their communities. What would be interesting to see however, is whether such sympathetic views will translate to softer immigration rules and policies aimed at integrating illegal immigrants. Interesting too would be an assessment of whether stories of immigrants being naturalized in European countries will encourage more people from sub-Saharan Africa to risk crossing the Mediterranean for the chance to live in Europe.
Whatever the impact of these stories, it’s regrettable that it took a extraordinary feat of climbing up four balconies and saving a small boy’s life for Mr Gassama to be recognized as deserving of a job and citizenship.