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In the heroics of 'Le Spiderman,' recognition of what migrants can offer

France's rush to honor "Le Spiderman" Mamadou Gassama is natural. But it also highlights an oddity of the migrant experience: the strength needed to make the trip to Europe often isn't recognized there.

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French President Emmanuel Macron (l.) meets with Mamoudou Gassama, from Mali, at the Elysée Palace in Paris on May 28. Mr. Gassama is being honored by Mr. Macron for scaling an apartment building over the weekend to save a 4-year-old child dangling from a fifth-floor balcony.

Thibault Camus/Reuters

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It was his quick instincts, his strength – and no small dose of daring – that led Mamoudou Gassama up five stories of the façade of a Parisian apartment block where a small child was gripping onto an exterior balcony for his life.

“Le Spiderman,” as he’s been dubbed, has been feted across France for saving the four-year-old boy. He received accolades from the mayor of Paris, the French interior minister, and the French president himself. His rescue resonated around the world, including in the US on a holiday weekend meant for reflection on the sacrifice of others. But his global celebrity also stands in contrast to the darkening mood around immigration in France and beyond.

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As the unauthorized immigrant from Mali was invited to apply for naturalization by President Emmanuel Macron, his fortitude was on full display. In a gilded room in the Elysee palace, Mr. Gassama’s muscles bulged from under a white, short-sleeve button-down.

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Yet that brawniness led him not just on the path to French citizenship, but out of the scrubland of Mali in the first place. The drive it takes to cross, in Gassama’s case, Africa, to get to Libya, and then across the Mediterranean is rarely praised by locals. More often it’s perceived as a threat.

And for a few days, at least, many migrants feel their strength and stamina is being recognized – as traits that make their host country a better place.

“We are so happy, he saved a child,” says his countryman Lamine, who arrived in Paris illegally a month ago at age 19 and is now living in a temporary camp on the banks of the Canal Saint-Martin.

“He gives another image of illegals in France,” says Catherine de Wenden, a migration specialist at SciencesPo in Paris. “It shows to the public that illegals are not only people we have to avoid, but those who can participate generously in forms of citizenship, including solidarity on the streets.”

A video capturing Gassama climbing briskly to reach the dangling boy went viral, and he became an overnight folk hero in France. “I just climbed up and thank God, God helped me. The more I climbed the more I had the courage to climb up higher, that's it," he recounted the experience to the local press.

“Bravo,” President Macron told him at their meeting Monday. “Because this is an exceptional act ... we are obviously, today, going to regularize all your papers.”

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Gassama is not the only unauthorized immigrant to be lauded a hero. In 2015, it emerged that it was a Malian, Lassana Bathily, who led six hostages to safety during a terrorist attack at a kosher grocery store in Paris. He was also granted citizenship.

But Macron was quickly called out this week for hypocrisy, after a toughening migration policy that seeks to more quickly differentiate refugees and economic migrants. “An exceptional act does not make policy," Macron said when questioned by reporters on the point. He has long maintained that France’s policy must be fairer for those in dire need, and stricter for those who are not.

Along the canal, migrant camps spring up continually. One social worker on a recent day from the organization France Terre d’Asile, (France, Land of Asylum), which helps find housing for the most vulnerable migrants, says Gassama’s exploit is a rare piece of positive news for the unauthorized community in Europe. “If a person does something extraordinarily brave, he or she could be rewarded for it.”

Still, the vast majority endure the “ugliness of life here,” he says pointing to a garbage-strewn stretch of the canal where he estimates about 300 unauthorized immigrants are currently living. The government has said it wants all such makeshift encampments shut down.

Lamine, the Malian teen, says life is not as good in France as he imagined, and he believes it can only improve if he is granted asylum and a chance to work.

This becomes a vicious circle of anti-migrant sentiment, says Professor de Wenden. “What shapes the image [towards migrants] is mostly those living in the streets, even if it is due to the lack of welcoming policy we have in France and in other European countries,” she says. “We have people in the street who are not allowed to work. A lot of the public thinks they come here to be helped by social services. They came to find a job.”

Gassama has been offered one – to apply to become a firefighter. Adjacent to the camp sits a fire station. “Gassama has the courage, and the mentality, that it takes,” says firefighter Jean-Marc, dripping wet, with flippers and goggles in his hand, as he gets out from a morning diving practice.

He might just want to look across the canal to find some candidates. Lamine and a group of friends around him says they could do what “Le Spiderman” did – they have all spent months training by trekking from Africa or the Middle East to Europe. “We have done more than that,” Lamine says, smiling.